Tech Tips: Convergence?


by Dan Comden, Access Technology Staff

Converge (verb)

  1. to move or cause to move towards the same point
  2. to meet or cause to meet; join

One of the best parts of working with technology for as long as I have (how many years I won't say) is watching how modern tools develop, are introduced, and embraced or spurned by society. In the field of accessible technology this watching game is made even more interesting as we see the game of "catch-up" played by developers of operating systems, hardware devices, applications and web pages, not to mention those who create the special technology used by people with disabilities to interact with all this cool stuff. As new versions of the foundational technology is released (think smart phones, computers with faster processors, and operating systems), others rush to develop fascinating new ways to work, play and explore in our daily jobs, our learning at school, at home, and for entertainment

At times it feels as if all these accessibility efforts are converging, coming together to make these tools and diversions available to the greatest portion of society possible. We get glimpses of these possibilities when a computer is available with built-in accessibility for blind people, or we can carry a device that will read to us regardless of our ability to easily process text. The crop of apps for smart phones and tablets continues to ripen and it is a distinct challenge to know about every option for every possible platform someone might want to use. This is a good thing.

On the flip side, it's still apparent that there is much work to be continued. Many developers have no concept of accessible design, and do not include basic elements in their applications that would enable a more widespread and easier use of their product. In my experience, this is not due to any hostility toward accessibility, it's merely a lack of knowledge about why it's important. And that's where we come in.

We are all end users of technology and all have a variety of skills and abilities in using our chosen devices. Without feedback to the vendors and developers, they will not know of any problems with their products. We need to point out when there is a problem, when something "breaks" for us. A succinct email message pointing out a lack of keyboard access, or inability to select text to be used with a reading program may be enough to effect change. You won't know if you're the first or the fiftieth person to report a problem, but it must begin somewhere. Be polite, be brief in describing the problem, and let them know the impact their software has for you. In my experience developers love to solve problems and most of them want to increase the reach of their site or software, not limit it.

For example, a new-to-me-site that allows one to browse new music is called FindNewJams.com. It completely breaks the basic paradigm of browser accessibility by taking over the Tab key to be used as the play/pause control for its built-in audio player. I sent a quick message to their support email listed on their website and, while I haven't heard back yet, I know that they are now aware of the issue and can consider it in future fixes or features.

It is obvious that some sites/services continue to be a challenge, that convergence is still a work in progress. However popular services such as Facebook and Pandora continue to evolve and, at least in the case of Pandora, now have keyboard shortcuts that provide control over the audio system without removing basic browser functionality.

Get online and get active—developers need to learn about the importance of accessibility and the best way for them to do that is to hear directly from users. You can help with convergence!