Friday, April 20, 2007

A request for designers

I want closed captioned glasses, gosh darn it. I feel like a broken record for saying this over and over again, but there's so much in the world you can't have access to if you're disabled. My nemesis is audio. But the vision-impaired, the mobility-challenged, the - it's not that we're less capable people, but we are in a way handicapped because we can't access some portion of the world most people take for granted. We may get a lot of support and encouragement and help, but the world is fundamentally not designed for us, and that is what makes the term "disabled" instead of "differently-abled" apply.

It's for purely selfish reasons that I'm saying this, I'll admit. Making complex technological aids to benefit a small fraction of people in the world isn't efficient in the least. But it makes a world of difference to that small fraction, let me tell you. Of the videos on Google, I've watched many of the ones with subtitles not because they're the best, but because I can understand them. When MetaOlin watched videos for our discussion assignments, I wasn't able to participate because I didn't know what they were saying - I read books on the same topic instead as an alternative, but it wasn't the same. I love that all the rooms at Olin have flashing fire alarms, because in high school I was restricted to living in one of two dorm rooms because the rest didn't have alarms with lights, so while my friends upgraded to new halls and cool rooms, my roommate and I were stuck.

I was so happy when DVDs came out and when I discovered movie transcripts online - so thrilled with closed-captioning that when I was a kid and our street got its first captioned television I'd stand in my neighbor's back-yard watching their TV through the porch window just to see words on the bottom of the screen; I didn't care what the show was. It could be CNN talking about tax laws, which is one of the most boring things in the world if you're ten years old. Whatever. People on TV were talking. I could understand them. That was enough.

It's like having a driving hunger for information that's locked away from you and doesn't have to be, a pang in your stomach you don't even notice because you've lived with it so long and don't ever expect to be fed in that way. You can't imagine it unless you've experienced something similar.

Imagine living in Germany and not being able to understand German, but one day waking up and realizing that - you still can't understand German, but all the radio announcers are suddenly speaking English! It's like a world opening up, and you'll spend the entire day just listening hungrily to different radio stations, your entire day is spent rejoicing that you can understand radio shows. Before this, maybe you could ask a bilingual friend what the radio show was about, and feel guilty taking their time to translate things. You could hire a language interpreter or page through a dictionary and make yourself awkwardly conspicuous. If you were really lucky you could get a script of the radio play, park your car on the side of the road (making yourself an hour later than your friends who could keep driving through the show), and flip through the booklet as the actors talked, but those were few and far between and as good as it got. And now you can listen to the radio whenever you want. You don't have to make any special arrangements or put anyone through any more trouble. Any radio show you want. Any time.

It's a tremendously powerful feeling.

So why am I writing this? I'm writing this because I know most of the people reading this blog are hackers, engineers, creators in some way. The people reading this post are going to be the ones that build the world we live in tomorrow and the technologies we use to interface with them. And when you design these things, and you think of what features to put in them, please give a thought to accessibility. Please go out and make sure wheelchairs can navigate the blocks of the city you're designing, that color-blind people can read the websites you're making, that we don't need five perfectly articulating fingers to man the controls of your device. Provide transcripts and subtitles if you can; make plaintext content easy for screen readers to pick up on - you don't have to do everything, I know we can't always do something, but anything you can do helps.

Even if it's only going to help one tenth of one percent of all the people who use it. You never know who's in that tiny group of people. I can ask you to design for me or for people like me, but there are millions of others out there in the world. They might be your friend or neighbor, your uncle or classmate. Someday you might be one of them.

When you design things, think about whose worlds you can open up with what you're making.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Could we make a device that squeezes various parts of the arm when various frequencies are detected? I haven't a clue whether that would give you the accuracy you'd need to make out human speech, but it seems totally reasonable that you could 'hear' the higher notes of the piano.