Flowing with technology: the evolution of inclusive design

I have been absent from the inclusive design, accessibility, usability, universal design et al discussion for some time now; not because I don't care anymore, but simply because I've felt I had nothing new to say.

During this time I have been observing it all from the sidelines, watching my beloved inclusive design get submersed in the sewage of technology. Although I still believe that I have nothing new to say, I somehow feel that perhaps I didn't express myself well enough, clearly enough or even, I dare say, loudly enough.

At the heart of it all lies human rights and the fundamental principle of equality for all human beings. This means that as far as access to technology goes, the aim should be to include as many people as possible, bearing in mind that there will always be people whose circumstances prevent them from absolute inclusion irrespective of whatever provisions may be put in place. Sounds straightforward, so why hasn't it happened? Well, there are lots of reasons and the landscape is pretty complex, but if you take a step back, a few themes emerge.

Someone's got to pay for it

The first stumbling block is money, since from a technical standpoint most things are possible, but the reality is that accessibility does not come out of the box. It takes time and skill, which requires money. And even though arguments have been made about the commercial viability of making everything accessible to all and sundry, if this was the case, the technology industry would be all over it. Why? Because the technology industry is comprised of businesses and businesses are in the business of making money. The bottom line is that if it was commercially viable, it would have happened.

Legislation and regulation aren't working

In the UK, government seems to be mighty good at talking about accessibility and drafting legislation, but little action has actually been taken with respect to their own digital presence as well as regulation of the private and third sectors. The legislation that is in place is wooly at best and at present there is no official regulator; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have abandoned the eAccessibility Forum and the communications regulator Ofcom has publicly stated that eAccessibility is not within its remit. At present, accessibility remains the domain of disability advocates and the third sector who, after a ridiculously long recession, do not have the resources to make any real inroads.

When I was active in trying to sort this mess out, government, industry and the third sector may have come to the table, but they all either sat on their hands or pointed fingers at each other. They agreed that something needed to be done, but didn't agree on how and none were willing to take responsibility. Lots of talk, but no action.

Inclusive design and accessibility are not the same

I could waffle on about the differences between accessibility and inclusive design, but put simply, inclusive design is do-able and accessibility as it is currently couched is not. The whole concept of accessibility arose from the human right for all people to benefit from technological innovation, thus the equal right to access. This differs greatly from the idea that everything should be "accessible" and, for the record, I believe that this is where it has all gone awry. Moreover, it is important to put the necessity for governments to provide equal access to all of its services for all of its citizens aside, as this should be a given; the push for accessibility and inclusion is not exclusive to governments and it is for this very reason that in industry and the third sector inclusive design must prevail.

Inclusive design is realistic: it puts a product or service's intended users at the forefront and seeks to include as many of these people as possible. I have said this before, but it illustrates my point, so here goes - being blind, I don't expect Aston Martin to take the DB6 out of retirement and make it accessible for me, nor do I want an art gallery website to provide extensive alt text for every picture. Expectations need to be realistic, rational and reasonable and as such need to be adjusted if disabled folk are to be included anytime soon.

Technology is varied and complex

The trouble is that although activity around the politics of accessibility has resulted in some progress, technology itself has been moving at a considerably faster pace and it is clear, at least to me, that there has to be a better way. With web standards still falling behind implementation and mobile platforms returning us to the software days of old, where closed and proprietary technologies prevail, the interoperability required to make accessibility straightforward simply does not exist. I guess this is why I stopped talking about all of this, because even though technology has changed significantly, the arguments and practices around accessibility have not.

Even so, even if inclusive design was adopted over accessibility, implementation on a product by product or a service by service basis is not enough; it would only cause polarisation, with those who 'do' on one end of the spectrum, those who 'don't' on the other and very little in between.

And this brings me to my recommendation, which is intentionally naive, as the only way to put it forward simply and sensibly is to ignore the nonsensical political environment that this sits in. So, on the premise that we live in a democratic meritocracy, it is not a matter of finding new funds, just judiciously redeploying existing ones that are currently being used as toilet paper.

I will not go into the mechanics of how this will work in this blog, although I have actually done so for the sake of my own sanity, but it is pretty simple. It starts with governments creating the right environment for industry to innovate in this area. We certainly have a changing, more engaged, ethical and caring society and if the right building blocks were in place, then a competitive marketplace could flourish, where inclusive design would exist on two levels. The first being environmental, where the collaboration of government, industry and the third sector would ensure that inclusion happened holistically in that there would be enough suitable products in the marketplace for as many people as possible to be included. Inclusion is not about making everything accessible to everyone; it's about giving people choice, with access to a variety of technologies to meet their needs. It's already happening in the mainstream consumer marketplace. Just look at the different smartphone apps available.

The second level would be at product or service level, where the best customer experiences would be made available to as many of its intended users as reasonably practicable. It is not enough to just have choice, as good design is inherently inclusive.

I would love to live in a world where inclusion was the norm, discrimination did not exist and happiness was valued over consumerism, but that's just not the way it is and although ideals spawn great ideas, ideals alone won't get us there. We must accept the reality of the political, social and economic landscape and work with it, not against it.

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