Despite Advances, Are Mobile Computers Any More Accessible

by Reads (3,740)

One of the biggest issues that I run into as a website developer is creating something that is beautiful, functional, and accessible. Many times, I can nail two of the three easily, but that beautiful and accessible piece is something that has always been very hard to do within the context of web-page design. This isn’t to say that I throw accessibility out the window, I do not by any means, but I do notice, over the course of using computers, the web, and other technologies, that there is a large issue with maintaining accessibility while having something attractive enough to be appreciated by all audiences.

I figure for many using a computer [to read this] this is not too much of an issue. While there are larger fonts and other adaptive technologies that can be used to make it easier to live with computers, the unfortunate fact is that computing technologies have advanced so fast that making sure it’s able to be used by people regardless of physical ability has fallen to the wayside. I was reading an article at E-Week some weeks ago, and beside making me consider all the more that my web pages should be accessible, I also considered for a moment that my mobile technology should also be accessible. I understand many technologies that are a convenience to me started out as adaptive technologies (word completion software, text messaging, etc.); but I wonder what has happened to the mobile community when those people who would most need mobile technology adapted to their uses, have trouble taking the most advantage of it.

This article is not meant as a slight to developers and manufacturers, in fact its purpose is to make you aware that while many of these mobile devices are here to stay, they still have to be adapted (software and hardware) for all audiences to use effectively. Now, with that said and out of the way, let’s talk about what is out there that is accessible and what is coming down the pipe.

Current Technologies

One of the biggest complaints about my Treo I hear, is the font I use is too small. Then I explain to them the reason the font is small is because I use a size that is comfortable for me and either through the default settings, or via a separate program, one can tailor font sizes to best suit their needs.

Other items that increase the accessibility of PDAs are:

– text to speech engines
– programs that allow you to change the color of the screen to fit one’s preferred viewing style
– multiple input options (keyboards, on screen keyboards, speech, etc.)
– force-feedback buttons and screens

As I sat and looked at what is available to me right now though, I wondered why in all of the chasing of Moore’s Law, was there a leaving behind of those people who would most need this technology.

A Solvable Issue

Part of the issue has to do with just being considerate. As a website developer, I have always found it quite easy to make a website that is at first beautiful, and then functional. The problem is that working like that ends up creating more issues in the long-run because you have to go back and retrofit your coding and design to fit everyone well. In the same way, I see where mobile devices have gone. Whereas there was once an effort to design well laid out menus, easy to press buttons, and specific audible sounds that let you know what you were doing when, now there is more fashion, or fluff depending on how you look at it, and less attention is paid to the simple of making something just all around easy to use.

As this section states, this is a solvable issue. Designing with standards and compliancy in mind is a start. For example, a mobile device should have a web browser that works not only well with standard HTML pages, but is able to take some of the more complex CSS and script driven web pages, and then parse them audibly, or even with minimal image, so that they can be much more accessible to those with those needs. Buttons that are flush with device bodies should be raised or lowered, with some kind of distinctive marking that would make them a “memory touch” rather than a calculated one.

What Does the Future Hold?

Honestly, that is very hard to figure out. Technology improves very fast, and it seems that every day there is a new hurdle being lept over (e-ink displays, text to speech text messages, two handed game controllers, etc.) While there are increasingly stronger measures everyday and every model release cycle to cater to every user, the fact is that mobile device manufacturers are in somewhat of a pickle. They can make devices accessible, at the cost of looks and functionality, but [maybe to them] that would cost them the increase of sales that they are looking for. Even as I type this article, I am thinking about how much nicer it would have been for an ergonomic keyboard to be built into my laptop instead of this flat and tightly spaced one. Yes, I am used to it, but something that would have saved my wrists a bit more strain would have made me feel better (not only about myself, but also about a company that took such a “little” step to ensure that I would have pain free typing).

Nothing is ever impossible except to a person who does not believe that possible exists. And while making changes to existing products would be costly and largely market a smaller than niche group in many cases, I believe that for mobile computers to really take off on a worldwide, and world changing scale, the question of mobile devices and accessibility is one that can be answered, and should be answered.

This article was based on a reading here: http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,1901845,00.asp

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