As a committed tech skeptic, I am often wrong =) Technology does wonderful, often magical things for the world, but there’s nothing more magical than those who do work on accessibility. I was lucky enough to be included in a beautiful TODAY show piece Friday by colleague and friend Kerry Sanders about a 7-year-old blind girl named Emily Groves and how she sees the world. It’ll make you misty.
I’d like to make this point about accessibility and design. It’s been true forever: Developing for the disabled is actually a very good thing for tech companies, and for all of us, because it drives innovation in new, exciting ways that ultimately benefit everyone. How’s that for turning “handicapped access” on its head? We often think of inclusivity as a costly add-on, and afterthought. But in the tech world, it’s the reverse. Folks pay to invest in and develop cutting-edge technology that often has everyday use. Voice recognition, for example, came into its own as an accessibility tool, now almost everyone uses it. Display improvements designed for the partially blind help all of us. This will be true of today’s tech, too. Smartphones that can be used as hearing aids will be used some day as translation machines for travelers, or just to make it easier to chat in a crowded bar, or make us safer when listening to music walking down the street (the thing will ‘hear’ the car coming and warn you).
And often, making something accessible isn’t hard, it just requires a little empathy. For years, ATMs were built with braille keypads, but they were still useless for the blind, because the user interface required account holders to follow a sequence of on-screen prompts. Adding a headphone jack and voice commands, when combined with braille keys, made all the difference.
Long ago, smart designers told me that accessible design is simply good user interface design. If you’ve ever had to log on to a computer with a broken display or mouse, for example, you were pretty glad someone thought of keyboard shortcuts. So here’s a Friday toast to all those folks out there working to invent technologies that level the playing field for everyone. I’ll gladly admit I’m wrong about my skepticism for you any time.