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Acces barriers: Communication Breakdown?

By Tristan Parker

“The more this gets talked about, the better”, says one interviewee in a new report on access to communications, broadcasting and IT by older people and people with disabilities.

It sounds simple enough, but it’s a key point: tackling barriers to accessibility is not an insurmountable task, but the starting points are realising the issues, airing them, and discussing them: all sadly still quite rare in modern organisations.

The report, ‘Exploring how manufacturers, suppliers and retailers address the needs of older and disabled people: what are the barriers and drivers?’ (
http://www.ofcom.org.uk/research/usability/older_disabled/research/ ),
was undertaken by i2 media research for the Advisory Committee on Older and Disabled People (ACOD –
http://www.ofcom.org.uk/about/csg/adv_cmmt_older_disabled/ ),
a sub-group of communications and broadcasting industry regulator Ofcom. Its findings were based on interviews with senior figures from 20 companies, representing a cross-section of the broadcasting, telecommunications and online sectors.

The interviewee responses pinpoint a number of barriers preventing their respective industries from better addressing the needs of disabled people. Lack of user research into usability and accessibility was found to be a common barrier, and this was also found to be true even in larger companies that carry out substantial consumer research on other topics.

There was found to be a reliance in some organisations on “gut feeling and expertise” to address customer needs, rather than specialist research. Tellingly, one interviewee said: “If we always did what the customer wants, we wouldn’t move forward at all.” This apparent knowledge gap might help explain why some participants also reported that they found it difficult to build a business case for more accessible products.

As well as uncovering obstacles to progress, a key objective of the report was to identify what could be done to improve the current situation and overcome obstructive barriers. Several common themes emerged in this respect, including – unsurprisingly, given the ‘gut feeling’ finding – calls for greater availability of current research on the needs of disabled people.

Other ideas for improvement included using the procurement process to demand more accessible products, and better consumer communications. In fact, several interviewees said consumers currently “do not have sufficiently high expectations of the usability and accessibility of media products and services.” This is a problem, since if customer feedback about accessibility and usability is not present, it will be even harder for companies to encourage developments in this area, the report finds.

The report’s primary conclusion was that despite finding evidence of support of accessibility issues in some companies, other pressures often took priority. These often included commercial considerations: “If companies do not believe they will benefit financially from addressing the needs of older and disabled people … and if there is no external requirement or incentive for them to do so … there is little reason to envisage a change to the status quo.”

The report warns of a potentially bleak future for accessibility should this external encouragement not be supplied: “The current economic downturn and competing commercial pressures are likely to limit the extent to which industry is able to better address the needs of older and disabled people.”

It was also concluded that a more collaborative approach across the industry was needed, as well as better co-operation between the industry and stakeholders. Many companies were happy to address accessibility and usability issues, but wanted to do so through an inclusive method – potentially through communication with charities and government – rather than being “lobbied or pressurised” into doing so.

On the positive side, the report does suggest that most companies are willing to explore accessibility issues, providing that certain criteria are met, and that they are certain the need exists in the first place. Which brings us neatly back to our opening remark: the more accessibility is openly discussed, and the need for action is firmly established, the better for all concerned.

Comments

  1. Jerry Weichbrodt | June 12th, 2009 | 3:07 pm

    I can absolutely believe the results of this report. I believe “gut feeling” carries a lot of weight and does a disservice to many people since that “gut feeling” is usually that of twenty-something-year-olds with very good vision, excellent dexterity, and a much higher than average level of technical ability. It is a crime that human factors (or ergonomics, depending on where in the world you live) is considered “secondary.” Why can’t designers get a clue that they are designing for real PEOPLE who tend to want to use products out of the box without a ten-day course in software use or a thorough read of a manual in six-point type?

    Here in the U.S. we are just today seeing our analog television stations go off the air, and, even though this close-down has been several years in preparation, there is not one digital TV converter box that a blind person like me can set up independently. Everything is handled through on-screen menus, and of course accessible documentation is nonexistent. I’m sure the argument was that the set-up would only need to be done once, and those blind people don’t watch television anyway. Well, there may be a smaller market of blind television viewers after this debacle if it proves to be just too much of a bother to operate the equipment in the digital era.

    There are companies that put effort into designing accessible products, but my experience is that these efforts are rare and generally only apply to one or two models in a company’s line-up. Then those models are poorly and very spottily marketed so that the potential consumers who would really benefit either never hear about the products or discover that they’re hard to get. The accessible products don’t sell like hotcakes, so the products are discontinued. The whole exercise is doomed from the start and helps to reinforce the view that it’s not worth the trouble.

    In short, I’m afraid the same issues will continue to doom movement toward truly accessible products without some external pressures to force development, proper marketing, and production of equipment that everybody can use regardless of ability.

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