Taking The Social Model of Disability Online

Decades have passed and still accessibility remains on the fringes of technical change.

by El Gibbs on March 17th, 2015

As more of our lives move online, is the online world accessible to everyone? Are newer technologies keeping up, or are disabled people getting left out again?

How we are as disabled people in the world has changed over time; we used to be thought of as broken, crippled or handicapped. The social model of disability changed that, and brought with it the right to be in the world, just as we are. Laws were made mandating that public buildings become accessible, and at least in theory, people were no longer locked up in institutions and discriminated against at work.

International Symbol of Access sign against a background of street lamps and hazy sky.

Photo CC-BY Keoni Cabral, filtered.

The social model of disability reframes discussion of disability as a problem of the world, rather than of the individual. The stairs at the train station are the problem, rather than using a wheelchair. The social model demands change from the world and led to UN conventions and anti-discrimination laws. Accessibility offline did not happen by accident; rather it took disability advocates decades of time and effort.

Today, the same excuses for the offline world are being used for not making the online one accessible: we are mired in arguments about cost, while others say that by making accessibility part of development and testing structures, change is inevitable. I am more sceptical. Despite years of court cases, both in Australia and in the US, major corporations are reluctant to invest the resources to ensure everyone can use their websites and online tools.

Despite this, newer technologies are making far more of an impact, with both Google and Apple now featuring accessibility tools, and some game companies, and gamers, becoming champions of accessibility. But it is still a fringe idea, and the advocacy groups calling for digital standards are under-resourced and tiny. Both in the US and Australia, advocates for digital inclusion are dwarfed by the size of online media companies – lacking the power of lobbyists, they often struggle to be heard.

Medical or Social: Fix Me or Fix the World

The digital world is repeating the mistakes of the non-digital one: building structures for only one kind of body; an able, white, and usually male one. Instead of expecting disabled people to adapt to the digital world, it’s time the digital world adapts to us.

New technology, like 3D printers, are often used to ‘fix’ disabled people. Recently, 3D printers have been making custom-built prosthesis for children, in forms such as a raptor hand. Volunteers take the pattern and print out the parts for assembly. This has been extended to a range of devices that can be built with 3D printers, with Maker groups keen to focus on the ‘handicapped.’

Driverless cars may offer independence to disabled people, including people with a visual impairment, while adaptive wheelchairs can tackle stairs. A Canadian designer has built an exoskeleton that allows him to stand and walk a small distance.

The use of this type of technology goes back to the medical model of disability, where people are seen as broken and in need of being fixed. Both the stair-climbing wheelchair and the exoskeleton look to overcome the disadvantage of using a wheelchair; 3D printing projects replace missing human parts, and driverless cars are hitting barriers of discrimination at the pilot stage.

None of these technologies use the social model of disability – instead of ramps and elevator, or accessible public transport, they seek to change the individual to adapt to an able world.

For Christopher Hills, the adaptation of a head switch and text-to-speech software means he can use social media to find a way to use his iPhone to open his front door. And make a film about it. This is taking existing technology and adapting it to suit his needs, rather than trying to make the technology change his body.

Tweet from user Christopher Hills, @iAmMaccing, reading 'I can now open my electric front door using an iPhone. Check it out' with an embed of the YouTube video.

Tweet source.

Ricky Buchanan, from the accessibility website for Apple products, AtMAC, believes that these new devices, such as iPhones and iPads, have opened up new worlds for people who use assisted communication, without the huge cost: “Funding models are falling apart with the old providers. It used to cost $10,000 for a speech device. Now you can get an iPad with an app at an affordable price.”

However compelling these stories are, the global picture is not a good one. Very few countries have included ICT in their accessibility standards; this includes things like communications on public transport, ATMs and television, let alone apps, games and tablets.

Accessible videos are an ongoing challenge, with audio descriptions and captioning remaining hard to come by. It’s long been known that Flash creates accessibility problems, but the introduction of iPhones and iPads (and their lack of support for Flash) has actually helped. The recent announcement from YouTube that they will now use HTML5 for video playback makes millions of videos accessible. Meanwhile, a US campaign is trying to get NetFlix to make itself more accessible by providing audio descriptions, while in Australia, large television producers are hoping to water down the existing requirements for public reporting on captioning of television. Online streaming of Australian television is a mixed bag, with many services not even supporting captioning.

A recent Australian case illustrates how hard it can be to do something as basic as shopping online. Coles, one of the two main supermarket chains in Australia, had provided an accessible website for many years, but a recent upgrade had not included accessible features. Gisele Mesnage, who uses a screen reader, won a discrimination case after several years of trying to get Coles to change its website.

Online shopping has been an advance for disabled people, allowing them to shop more easily. However, despite it being 15 years since the Olympic Games website was sued in Sydney, companies continue to disregard basic features that would make their websites accessible. These include being accessible to screen readers, using image descriptions and making sure that the website can be navigated with a keyboard. One reason is the lack of digital standards, but a more likely one is that accessibility is just not included as a step in the testing process.

Do We Have to Make You?

The challenges of providing accessibility with newly evolved technology are a useful case study in the broader exclusion of people with disabilities – as apps and non-browser technologies improve, disabled people are rapidly being left behind. New standards for developing accessible apps have not been finalised, leaving a gap that disabled people can fall through. Buchanan says that: “Upgrades for apps and websites often wipe out accessibility because most companies don’t have access in their procedures. This affects switch and screen readers, and just about anyone who has accessibility needs gets forgotten.”

This point, that accessibility needs to be built into the basic architecture of design, is made again by Jonathan Avila when discussing mobile phones: “organisations must implement mobile accessibility design and requirements into their processes.” But both Apple and Android have a mixed record with upgrades changing the functionality of screen readers and touch interfaces, with external apps also contributing.

Accessibility standards are being slowly updated to include apps and other newer technology, but the basic principles have been around as long as the internet. Newer standards have been developed for both mobile apps and websites for mobile that take accessibility into account. Using these guidelines also improves the experience for people using the web on mobile who “will have a hard time if a website’s navigation requires the use of a mouse because they typically only have an alphanumeric keypad. Similarly, desktop computer users with a motor disability will have a hard time using a website if they can’t use a mouse. Additionally, people with disabilities sometimes use mobile devices to access websites.” The standards also helpfully provide information on how to build a business case to include accessibility from the beginning of the development process.

Apart from relying on these optional guidelines, one fix could be requiring Apple and Google to check for accessibility, then label apps with their accessibility features. Again, this pushes back on the idea that it is up to the disabled individual to change; rather the companies that control so much of our online spaces need to be held to the same standards on the internet as they are in non-digital places. If their stores off-line have to meet basic accessibility standards, then why not their app stores?

Facebook login on a mobile phone.

Photo CC-BY Maria Elena, filtered.

Facebook is an example of how a company can change, building a team specifically focused on accessibility — but also demonstrates that separating accessibility off to one side, rather than integrating with the engineering team, can leave the team responsible playing catch up: “The hope is that the company’s engineers will keep both physical disabilities and technical restrictions in mind when building something new — not just when [Facebook Accessibility lead] Wieland pays them a visit, not just after it’s built.” One of the ongoing challenges for sites like Facebook, with its continuous scrolling, is that it becomes impossible to use for people who navigate using the Tab key. “A simple bit of code would fix this, but again, they don’t fully test across the accessibility spectrum,” says Buchanan. Again, the size of the accessibility team is dwarfed by Facebook’s engineering team, making them hard to hear.

Can I Play Too?

Most talk about accessible services online may not include games. Given they are an $88b industry, including $25b of mobile games, this seems a rather large omission. Able Gamers has created a guide for developers, called Includification, that looks at the range of disabilities that can be accommodated in the design of games. They include mobility, visual, hearing and cognitive guides for a huge range of game functions. For example, being able to slow down a game “allows those with dexterity, precision and strength issues to interface with the game at an easier rate of speed. It also enables those with cognitive disabilities like processing and comprehension disorders to slow the game down so they can understand the game and what is happening on screen at a pace that meets their needs.”

Able Gamers recently gave awards for indie accessible games, but also for mainstream games that allow everyone to play. Announcing the award for Bayonetta 2, Able Gamers noted: “this game demonstrates that accessibility can be implemented into a mainstream AAA game without harming any of the gameplay.”

Bayonetta 2 display at a gaming convention.

Photo CC-BY William Tung, filtered.

A recent event from Special Effect shows the myriad of ways people can now play games, including eye-control. Designing games that deliberately exclude disabled people is bad business, with many older people, who don’t identify as disabled, also finding their designs difficult to access and play. Again, this demonstrates that the social model of disability is ignored for the online world – a park or a stadium or even a movie theatre would all have accessible features, so why aren’t games required to make the small improvements that would allow everyone to play? Is it because they just don’t think it’s of value, or because developers aren’t taught about accessibility from the start of their training?

Shawn Lawton Henry, from W3C (the developers of web accessibility standards) thinks that “new technological developments are being conceived and developed without considering all their potential users, and thus are initially inaccessible. We still have a long way to go until accessibility is adequately integrated as ‘business as usual’.”

Some advocates are reframing accessibility away from being about disabled people and towards a universal way of accessing apps and websites. Sarah Pulis (podcast audio link), the Head of Accessibility Services at PwC, says that by ignoring accessibility, companies are missing out on a large market — the 1 in 5 people with a disability: “Accessibility is part of user experience. If we go back to that concept that to create the best experience for users, then unfortunately we need to jump up and down a bit about the people who are not always considered when designing our product.” But often accessibility is an afterthought in the development process – many developers are self-taught, and because web accessibility is not mandatory, don’t learn the principles that would improve their overall skillset.

Where To Now?

Escalators in a bright, empty room.

Photo CC-BY Jody Frost.

The internet, and all the devices we use as part of accessing it, are not somehow off to the side of real life. Decades have passed and still accessibility remains on the fringes of technical change; ‘we’ll get round to that’ is no longer an option. Do we need regulation to force companies to make their online worlds as accessible as their offline ones? Do the various disability discrimination provisions need an urgent update to include digital accessibility?

While the digital revolution offers a huge array of tools to make accessibility possible, the will to do so remains a significant challenge in global digital standards. Some user experience experts have faith that corporate social responsibility will persuade business to incorporate accessibility into their work. However, the experience of disability advocates shows that this is a recipe for disaster; companies didn’t install ramps and elevators out of the goodness of their hearts. The development of digital standards as part of disability discrimination needs to be on the political radar, and laws developed to make sure the online world works for everyone.

People with disabilities are still arguing for basic rights, such as being able to work and live where they choose. More than that, we are arguing for the right to be treated as whole human beings, not a picture in an annual report or an afterthought of developers and designers.