Here's an article I submitted to the STC Usability and User Experience (UUX) newsletter:
Technical communicators and usability professionals share an interest in how easily someone can use technical information. How efficiently can someone glean the meaning of technical text? Is the experience of acquiring information satisfying or difficult? Can someone retain the information so that, after a period of not using it, she or he can easily reestablish proficiency?
Most of our usability discussion and research focus on those who have no functional impediments. But what about those who do? What about the software engineer with impaired vision? What about the IT professional who cannot hear, or the technical writer with limited range of hand motion? How do we best serve someone with dyslexia?
Addressing these questions is the domain of the field of accessibility, which studies the degree to which a product is usable by as many individuals as possible. A primary focus of accessibility is on persons with disabilities and how they access products through the use of assistive technology. This technology enables them to perform tasks that they were unable to accomplish, or had great difficulty accomplishing, by providing alternative methods of interacting with products.
While some individuals are born with disabilities, nearly all of us face the possibility of reduced function as we become older. Vision degrades as we age. Our dexterity diminishes and our hearing fades. Many of us probably have already increased the default font size on our browsers or have switched to more ergonomically satisfying keyboards. We might have adjusted filter keys to compensate for slight hand tremors. Perhaps we have cranked up the volume for e-mail alerts. At some point, we may want to stop typing altogether and use speech recognition software exclusively. Thus, accessibility might become more than simply an academic subject for all of us – it will become a practical imperative. As the elderly population grows over the next several years, the accessibility of technical information to that population will become a more critical factor in its design and creation.
What is another compelling reason for us to study accessibility? The U.S. government mandates that all Federal agencies make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. These requirements are defined in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, with the intention of eliminating barriers to using electronic and information technology and encouraging development of technologies that will help achieve that goal. Moreover, conformance to Section 508 guidelines is an increasingly heavy weighting factor in Federal procurements from its vendors. Information technology includes computers, software, firmware and similar procedures, services, and related resources. Electronic technology includes telecommunication equipment, information kiosks and transaction machines, Web sites, multimedia, and office equipment. Not only must the information technology itself, but also the technical support and technical documentation must be accessible. If you provide information or electronic services to federal agencies, you must respond to Section 508.
Federal agencies that acquire electronic and information technology use a tool called the Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs) to help them access how well Section 508 guidelines are met. The VPAT is essentially a checklist that spells out relevant accessibility criteria and asks companies to describe product features that support the criteria—and any deficiencies—and to provide supporting remarks.
There are eight distinct VPATs that correspond to the functional capabilities of specific technologies:
• Software Applications and Operating Systems – covers alternative access to applications, such as screen magnifiers for those with impaired vision and alternative keyboard navigation for those who cannot rely on pointing devices, such as a mouse.
• Web-based Internet Information and Applications – covers guidelines based in part on checkpoints and techniques developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium.
• Telecommunications Products – covers access to people who are deaf or hard of hearing
• Video and Multimedia Products – focuses on accessible alternative representations. For example, audible content is translatable into text and presented as closed-captioning. Audio description of important video content is provided through the secondary audio programming (SAP) channel within a standard analog video broadcast signal.
• Self-Contained Closed Products – are expected to provide accessibility as standalone units, without the support of external assistive technology.
• Desktop and Portable Computers – focuses on keyboards and other mechanically operated controls, touch screens, use of biometric form of identification, and ports and connectors.
• Functional Performance Criteria – concerns general accessibility criteria – for example, is at least one mode of operation and information retrieval provided that does not require user vision?
• Information, Documentation, and Support – covers user guides, installation guides for end-user installable devices, and customer support and technical support communications. Such information is to be available in alternative formats, such as Braille, large print, or cassette recordings, upon request at no additional charge.
Addressing accessibility issues has a practical effect on what we produce. These days, many technical documents include a section about accessibility in their introduction. If you’re familiar with the structure of the VPAT and have access to your product’s VPAT, you’ll have an easier time writing this section for your document. Also, as we design compelling graphics to communicate complex technical points, we might also need to author text alternatives for the visually impaired. As we work with usability specialists to make interfaces more intuitive, we can act as accessibility advocates.
What should technical communicators do to become more knowledgeable about accessibility? Find out whether your company employs accessibility analysts, and then talk to them. Research the topic on the Web and through groups like the STC UUX and AccessAbility SIGs. Attend relevant workshops. Knowledge of the area can become a marketable point on your resume.
As technical communicators, we put the needs of our audience first. Enlarging our audience is of benefit to them and to us. Caring about the changing needs of our audience as it ages is sensible. Learning about the area of accessibility is professionally smart and personally practical.