How tech companies are making their apps more accessible to the disabled

Last football season, Yahoo’s Darren Burton did something he’d never done before: He commissioned a fantasy football league. That may not sound like a particularly impressive feat to you, but for Burton, navigating lists of players, stats, and scores is a unique challenge, because he is blind.

Burton is an accessibility specialist on Yahoo’s accessibility team, a four-man group of engineers and designers that make Yahoo’s family of apps accessible for everyone, including those with visual, audio, or physical impairments. So when Yahoo began making its fantasy service, full of numbers and real-time feeds, fully accessible to everyone, Burton didn’t want to just test it; he wanted to be the boss.

I briefly met Burton at Yahoo’s accessibility lab, a large room at the company’s Sunnyvale, Calif. headquarters where everyone from Yahoo employees to new graduates to startup founders to CEOs of international companies can peek inside the inner workings of Yahoo’s accessibility efforts and discover ways to improve their own services.

According to the World Health Organization, more than one billion people have some form of disability today. That’s one in seven people around the world who may look at technology as a way to make their lives more manageable.

Although companies are required by law to make their apps and services accessible to people with disabilities, it’s still widely overlooked, especially among early-stage companies who are trying to build and grow quickly. By taking a look at their apps at Yahoo’s lab, designers and engineers can see the holes in design and functionality that are limiting to people with physical or mental impairments.

As Mike Shebanek, senior director of Yahoo’s accessibility team explained, all new employees — or “Yahoos” for short — must go through an accessibility training workshop that includes a handful of slides and hands-on testing with gear the team has around the office. When he asks recent college graduates about how much they learned about making tech accessible in university programs, the answer is always the same: nothing.

“You can come in with a computer science degree, an engineering degree, a software design degree, you probably won’t have heard of accessibility,” he said. “People are coming to work in this field not realizing the need to do this work, and how to do this work.”

In the lab, goggles, gloves, and screen readers show people what it’s like to use services with visual, audio, or physical impairments. For instance, I wore goggles to simulate color-blindness and viewed ads for clothing I thought was a completely different color than it truly was; leather gloves with the fingers sewn shut demonstrated in a very low-tech way what it’s like to use a computer with limited hand movement, like arthritis or missing digits.

I went through the same hour-long training new Yahoos go through, that included a presentation slide with the infamous “dress,” underscoring that the way people view and use technology is never quite as obvious as you think. The lab itself was somewhat underwhelming — not because accessibility isn’t important or interesting, but because making apps and services accessible means getting a lot of inconspicuous things right.

Shebanek’s experience in assistive tech spans decades, and he is partially responsible for what could be considered the best accessible tech out there — he was part of the team that built VoiceOver for the Mac, and then later the iPhone, at Apple.

“When personal computers came out, they didn’t have a lot of assistive technology. You had to go to a specialized company that provided specialized software training and it cost a lot of money to add this to the computer,” he said. “When mobile came along, it learned from that, and the big change was it now got integrated. Starting with the iPhone 3GS, and now Android, the assistive technology you used to have to get separately is just in there.”

To read the rest of this article, published in The Week, please click here.