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Accessible Tech  Standards Lead to Superior  Universal Design

By Larry Skutchan

When you use a tool, you usually don’t think too much about the interface unless it is unfamiliar, or confusing, or in less than ideal conditions. In fact, the perfect interface is one you do not have to think about at all. Take the hammer, for example. A hammer uses an interface—a handle and head—that once learned is simple, effective, and universal. As our tools become more complex, the design of the interface becomes more important.

Tools can contain many controls for performing specific tasks or adjusting features. When these tools are digital, interfaces via a keyboard, mouse, or touch screen become necessary. The important connection between these modes of interaction is standardization of the communication protocol between you—the human—and the device. With these standards, additional kinds of interaction modes become viable. These can include voice interaction, eye tracking, and automatic screen lighting adjustment for varying light conditions.

The standards inherent in communication protocols such as HTML5, XML, and MathML make it possible for accessibility tools to interact intelligently with the data and for the tool to receive the correct interpretation of that data in the most usable interface. This is done without the sacrifice of design features but, in fact, results in enhancements for all users.

Accessible technology standards make it possible for the greatest number of potential users to operate a tool/device in a wide range of situations. For example, the standards used to create a voice-activated navigation app would make that app useful for a sighted driver to keep their eyes on the road or a traveler who is blind to move about independently or assist in giving directions. It would work with voice input or braille input. It would work with Bluetooth speakers in your car or head phones on the street. In other words, these standards, which lead to universal design, break down barriers and ultimately makes the technology friendlier for all users.

MathML is a textbook example (no pun intended) of a communication protocol for accessibility. Scientists and mathematicians struggled with early electronic representations of expressions represented as graphic images which do not scale appropriately to different screen sizes, are not searchable, and can be difficult to place accurately on the page. MathML solves all these problems and enables a user who is blind to examine complex expressions programmatically using software tools.

When there are communication standards, the ways you can interact with a device increases, making it possible to create interesting and specialized software and hardware for nearly any situation. One of the more dramatic examples of this is screen reading software for people who are blind. These software tools verbalize the elements of the interface or make them available on a braille device.

Accessible tech is not just for blind and visually impaired users. It applies to anyone who needs to use a tool in a wide variety of situations. Accessible tech allows for the expansion of ways of working between you and the device that we are just starting to take advantage of and explore. The use of accessible technology standardization protocols directly results in superior universal design for everyone.  Whether that interaction comes through increased artificial intelligence for smarter smart speakers or through more realistic holograms for virtual reality applications, only the lack of standards can impede the possibilities.

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