Inaccessibility too is a design choice

Inaccessibility too can be a design choice. There, I said it. And I don’t mean just designing something without a faintest clue about what (digital or analog) accessibility means, but designing ignoring it while aware of why it should be there, and designing by making bad decisions on behalf of the people that would need said accessibility features.

Not when someone designed fancy public buildings or pyramids hundreds or thousands of years ago, since wheelchairs didn’t exist back then, and neither did braille.

But more of cases such as when you design a place that you want to attract sign language users, but make it dark, and loud, with reflective (sound and light) surfaces, and narrow passageways, with no place to walk and talk on the same time, or even pass with a regular wheelchair.

Such as when you choose to make audiobooks available. Hey, audiobooks are by design accessible for blind people, right? Well… there is nearly always a print or ebook it was made of or for. And lots of books tend to have pictures, many of which don’t really matter at all, but on other times “as you can see on the picture on the next page” – that’s just bad design on the book. The authors forgot that not everyone can see what is in those pictures. Use your words to explain it so that everyone will understand what you want to say without the pictures. Still, I’m a bit more forgiving sometimes to new authors that just forget or don’t think that their audiences are probably wider than they thought. What I’m much less willing to forgive is when you make audiobooks, and decide who your audiences are with precision. Especially when you are supposedly making the books accessible. For every book that will get read and recorded in voice, there are some kind of guidelines spelled out. Like what kind of voice, if it will be read out by one or more voices, if each voice is by chapter, if we read out page numbers or side notes etc. These notes have also the target group defined sometimes. “We assume the listener/student is sighted and is also following the text in print format”. There. Who gets to decide what kind of especially technical materials are aimed for only sighted students? For some jobs, sure there must be accommodations available, or if law makers have decided that sight, hearing, mobility or whatever other criteria is an absolute need for a specific job, then list that.

Recently I’ve run to too many audiobooks in the making that have these explicitly stated sight requirements for the intended audience, and they are of various technical fields where I fail to see the relevancy of sight as a prerequisite. Whether it’s medicine or public health (where not all jobs involve looking at things. Also, couldn’t we make a similar exclusion point for sighted dyslexics? They might prescribe someone a wrong medicine or have the dosage way off. Or are they supposed to have a non-dyslexic person follow them as an accommodation?), or computer programming, or car mechanics… All fields where we should easily accommodate not seeing. And for all computer and programming related fields we definitely need more blind and other accessibility using programmers. Some of these computer and programming books are just so poorly designed and realized I want to scream. Some always describe how to get something done only as an eyeball user, like where in the screen you are supposed to click to get some menu item or something to happen, even when there are perfectly good, eye and mouse free alternatives for getting the same done. So it is a chapter after a chapter “click on the red x on the top right corner to close the window”, not even once considering the alternatives. Maybe that example works better for the original intended audiences, those that look at things and use a mouse. So maybe we should have picked a better book to make in audio then, when the eye free and mouse free alternatives were taught too. And for some programming books, well, of course we have all this code. Which is often read sparingly, and without specifying everything that gets written in the code. Which is a HUGE problem. Try to write java or any programming language when you have never seen the code and the brackets, quotation marks, square brackets, and everything in punctuation is left out… Good luck. I guess for a few of the books this is where they then chose just the dyslexics as audience; “they can always go to page 678 and copy what is on those many lines of code so we don’t have to read each (, [, {, pipe, tilde, and many things we don’t even know a name for”. Won’t really work that way either…

The inaccessibility of making things accessible can be so frustrating. There is this audiobook and edu material mess, and then there are all the accessibility testing problems where the accessibility testing tools aren’t accessible.

But back to the programming books again. They are incredibly frustrating. I want to learn programming, and while even just trying to proof listen to some of the materials (with my own devices accessibility set so that I can use them), it’s screamingly obvious I’ll need much more heavy-handed solution to be able to learn. Do I care if the study text is read out by a human reader or a machine voice of my choice? No, not really. Do I care that so much of the code and punctuation is left out? I do. And without redesigning the whole audiobooks apps’ functionality, that would make me go to the machine voices. Because then I can stop, use  the rotary to switch to full punctuation, and listen to the code section with detail. before switching the punctuation back to my regular settings. I could of course also make some things huge on the screen and hope to catch any typos or bad code. Or, better yet, finally get a refreshable braille display and learn all the punctuation codes I need. Read and check the code without the excuse of bad eye days, and with no easy way outs for not knowing the correct syntax just because you’ve never seen it.

So no matter how I look at all those codes and examples in the making (of those books in audio), they leave a sad air of inaccessibility having been a design choice. A relevant thing to ponder of course would be if it’s possible to make all books accessible in audio, but pretty much everything can (except maybe dictionaries, and those things would not really work in just audio). I’ve read (listened to) books about Roschacht ink blot tests, the importance of sign language in education, linguistics and many other topics where often someone’s been surprised to hear those exist in audio. And when it’s possible to make a book about the ink blot tests without needing to describe the ink blots, and with the listeners left with a feeling they just enjoyed the same whole book experience as the print readers, picking and enforcing some other intentional accessibility barriers in “accessible” book formats just becomes inexcusable. And this has been irritating me for several months now, more and more books becoming inaccessible by the reason. Choice.

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