A11Y for Software, Hardware, Web, and Robotic Interfaces

Kavita Krishnaswamy


A11Y is an abbreviation, where the number 11 refers to the number of letters between the letters 'a' and 'y' in the word accessibility. Accessibility of interfaces is not only important for the web or computer software, it is also vital for effectively controlling hardware devices and robotics technologies. Interfaces may be inaccessible for people with a wide range of disabilities and impairments related to hearing, vision, cognitive, and motor functionality. When developing interfaces, designers must keep in mind the different types of assistive technologies that may be used for interacting with it from the beginning stages of conceptualizing the interface, such as screen readers, speech recognition software, and one-click switches. Designing an accessible interface from the beginning of the project is far less complicated than retrofitting an existing interface to make it accessible.


As of 1998, the Section 508 of the U.S. Workforce Rehabilitation Act requires that federal agencies and hardware manufacturers selling to the federal government create information and communications technologies (ICT)—such as technology, online training, and websites—that are accessible for all persons with disabilities. It is important to provide equal accessibility for all individuals, regardless of the unique barriers that they may experience in their efforts to control software and devices.

Likewise, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) of 2010 requires federal communications law to increase the access of persons with disabilities to modern telecommunications, such as television and IP-delivered video programming, telecommunications relay services and emergency communications, devices, equipment, connectors, mobile browsers, and advanced communications services.

Despite these legislative policies, there remain significant gaps in accessibility. Many individuals struggle with remote controls as a result of the physical challenges of holding the remote and visual challenges of seeing the buttons. There are no guidelines to ensure accessibility of interaction control for robotic devices that may provide support with activities of daily living for people with disabilities. Time and effort required to complete a particular task are often metrics in evaluating accessibility so it is important to perform tests from the different perspectives of software, hardware, web, and robots.

General Tips for Accessibility

  • Software: Different operating systems may support different assistive technologies for input and output. Accessible interfaces must work with assistive technology. Reducing the number of multiple keystrokes and keyboard combinations improves usability for those with limited dexterity. Similarly, using repetitive or simultaneous keypresses may be difficult for certain assistive technologies that may only allow for a single keypress at a time. Drag-and-drop features should be operable by keyboard either by entering coordinates on the screen or snapping them into a user definable grid.
  • Hardware: To ensure accessibility of hardware devices, it may be beneficial to consider how to utilize smart home devices. For example, Alexa can be used to switch the lights on and off and even control the TV.
  • Web: By ensuring compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, many barriers can be eliminated.  This may increase the effectiveness of usability for certain individuals and maximize their interaction.
  • Robots: Since we have to control the robot in a three dimensional space, there should be a way to allow for interaction in the 3D space. By showing multiple perspectives of the device, e.g. from the top and the side, may make controls more accessible.
  • Overall: To minimize time and effort, it may be best to avoid deeply-nested menus, decrease the number of keystrokes, and minimize the number of clicks on the mouse for ease. When more effort and time are required, more mistakes also may occur. Consider providing options to redo or undo actions. Confirmation dialogs can ensure that the user’s wishes are being executed. The interface should also provide for users a unique way to restore the default settings for user convenience.


Discussion Questions

  • How can we standardize accessibility of interfaces across all domains of software, hardware, web, and robotics?
  • What steps can you take to make interfaces more accessible? How can you involve people with disabilities in the process?
  • Thinking about class projects you’ve designed, what steps could you take to make them more accessible?