That Accessibility Thing
Last year, surgeons removed my grandad’s left leg below the knee. He has had the daily symptoms of diabetes for as long as I can remember. A visit to my grandparents’ house as a child meant being fascinated and unnerved in equal measure by insulin needles on the kitchen table, insulin needles piercing his belly.
My grandad is an engineer. He was a car mechanic when he was younger, he worked in a steel mill, he was a maintenance guy at hospitals. His garage is really just a workshop, with a half dozen of those huge tool cabinets, full of every size and configuration of spanner and wrench. When I was young, most of my visits there involved assembling something and playing with it. He was a hobbyist photographer: he turned his shed into a darkroom and developed pictures of street lamps in the snow.
His symptoms have accelerated over the last couple of years. I was used to my grandparent’s bickering over the sugar content of his diet, his taste for fizzy drinks. Recently though, his eyesight has started to cloud as the diabetes has given him cataracts. Reading almost anything other than a jumbo-sized label is now impossible for him. He is also losing the sensation in his fingertips. He certainly can’t turn a nut on a bolt’s thread anymore, but also he finds it difficult to pick up a pen from a table top. He wears a lanyard that has a large-print flip phone, a marker pen, and a panic button on it. My grandad has an iPad.
He can’t use the keys on a laptop anymore, and he’s already reached the largest screen resolution on the device and he can’t read that any more. He uses the iPad to shop for the occasional thing, a little TV for the kitchen, batteries for the remotes. Typing is slow. Most apps have some small text that is essential for navigation, or checkout, that he can’t read.
If something he wants to use has an app, I’ll download it. The web is consistently impossible for him to use. The tappable areas are minuscule, even for somebody with good eyesight and dextrousness. Most websites’ body text are too small to read. He knows pinch to zoom, but it usually makes things harder as he tries to zoom back out and accidentally taps a link. Once that happens, he either has to find the tiny back button or get the swipe-from-off-left gesture just right. iOS notifications don’t reach his attention, they’re just a small dark stripe that appears and disappears from the top of the screen from time to time. If he wants to receive a Facebook video call (as he does sometimes, from younger members of the family), he can do that on the iPad — but only if he’s got the iPad locked. That’s the only time he can easily swipe the notification and bring up the call itself.
You read about required sizes for the tappable area in Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines. You read there’s a big accessibility section in the iPad’s settings. What they don’t tell you is that you can increase the text size to enormous, but it’s anybody’s guess what text that size scale applies to in any app. Try it out in Facebook’s Messenger. Now try and imagine you can’t read anything smaller than 30pt and try to use the app. Go to google.com and search for HDMI cables. Try to get from there to buying a cable from Amazon without reading any type smaller than 30pt. Imagine having little sensation in your fingertips as you tap from view to view.
Much is said about the accessible web at the moment. The WAI-ARIA folks have made great strides in laying out a framework to ensure that screen reading devices are able to parse the markup we write for visual consumption. Adoption is patchy, and besides that doesn’t necessarily help people like my grandad who could use visual interfaces if they didn’t make the text and tappable areas so small.
He gets bored. He used to fill his time with hobbies like building remote control vehicles, fixing up things around the house. He would love podcasts, his hearing is pretty good and his mind is sharp. I’m yet to find a way that he’s going to be able to access them, control the subscription, the playing and pausing. The world is closing in around him and it’s because the newest parts of it aren’t being made for people like him. The most exciting stuff is happening in the digital world right now, and it’s being made by twenty and thirty-somethings with 20–20 vision. Many developers know in the abstract that they should make sure that all of their images have alt-text, but they don’t know what the end results of their design decisions are for many people — so how can they begin to care?