Vinton G. Cerf
Why is accessibility
I sometimes think that, of all the disciplines,
ours ought to be the most effective at adapting
to the varied needs of users, including those
that are challenged to interact with computing
systems in one way or another. From
low to no vision, deafness or hearing
loss to carpal tunnel syndrome and
various other physical limitations, we
really should be able to configure our
software to adapt. And in many cases,
some very useful, clever, and general-purpose software adaptations have
been achieved. But the problem persists, and it is still not the case that one
can hold high expectations of accessible adaptation for a random application that happens to become necessary
or, at least, of high interest.
configurable user interfaces and even
when some or many such adaptations
are offered, some work a lot better than
others. The other side of this equation is
that the users also manifest unlimited
variations in their abilities and it seems
unlikely that programmers can be fully
cognizant of the nuances of each.
Another theme is the proliferation
of platforms through which we may
interact with computer-based services
and applications. It becomes increasingly difficult to design in detail every
mode of interaction, including accessibility variations, for every platform
and application imaginable. And even
if our imaginations were that good,
someone is bound to invent a new application requiring assistive responses
that we have not thought about before.
One popular tactic has been to try
to create general-purpose tools such as
screen readers to assist blind users or
automatic captions to help deaf users.
Another tactic is to “parameterize” the
interfaces so users can pick and choose
the variations best suited to their needs.
In my experience, the range of parameters devised is fairly large and it is easy
to get lost in selecting configurations or
even anticipating how well they will fit
user needs. Still, these tactics seem important for practitioners to apply when
appropriate. The challenges strike me as
fundamental, given the range of needs
and potential interface designs.
This is by no means a new problem.
There cannot be much debate that pro-
grammers and user interface (UI) and
experience (UX) experts need to think
fairly broadly and deeply about poten-
tial use cases before settling on an in-
terface design. While the use of librar-
ies intended to confer “accessibility”
on arbitrary applications may be help-
ful, it seems to me that no amount of
automatic adapting will make a poorly
designed interface accessible. For
some of the same reasons that security
ought to be “built in” to the initial de-
sign, so should accessibility. If UI de-
signers had to try their designs while
blindfolded or use their applications
with the sound off, they might gain in-
sights into the nuanced demands that
accessibility places on good design.
a I also recommend ACM’s Transactions on
Accessible Computing as a valuable resource.
Vinton G. Cerf is vice President and chief internet
evangelist at google inc. and the president of acm.