Access All Areas: Getting Your Knowledge Into Everyone’s Head

This is another design post, as that’s this week’s (loose) theme. Again, the reference is “Universal Principles of Design”, Lidwell et al, Revised edition, 2010.

If you’ve used a modern lift (you might call it an elevator) recently, you may have noticed that lifts now have larger buttons than they used to, have Braille on the buttons, provide audible feedback when you press buttons and, on a lot of occasions, as they move – and they’re bigger, with wider doors.

What’s happened? Legislation across many states and countries now require that any public environments be as widely accessible as possible – that disabled and able-bodied alike can use the lift, that people with prams can get in, that those who are larger don’t have a problem.

If you’ve looked at older lifts, in converted European hotels or pensiones, you’ll find tiny little boxes, with hard to read or unmarked buttons, zero feedback and an experience that is akin to travelling in a shoebox on a string. These were barely usable for the able-bodied and, despite the additional space consumed and the extra cost involved, it appears that the accessible elevator/lift is now with us for the foreseeable future.

When we consider accessibility, we think about how can we design our materials and teaching spaces so that the greatest number of people can use them – without any additional modification. This is the secret of the new lifts. A very large number of accessibility options are now standard in lifts so that they can be installed and used without further modification. Now this is certainly not a disabled/able-bodied divide because many of our teaching spaces are hard to work in at the best of times! As we’ll see, you might be surprised how often these issues can affect any or all of your students.

There are four fundamental principles of accessibility, which I’ll touch on here, and draw into teaching examples.

  1. Perceptibility: Everyone can perceive your content or design, regardless of their abilities. For teaching purposes, this means having redundant delivery methods such as ALT tags on HTML images, audio recordings for visually impaired students, full text version for text-to-speech synthesis and so on. This, to me, also includes the colour blindness checks that I’ve mentioned before. From a delivery point of view, can everyone in your lecture theatre see what you’re doing?
  2. Operability: Everyone can use what you’ve produced. In the knowledge area, perception and operation are closely aligned, but think about things like scratch-off cards. Do you have an alternative for someone without fine motor control – or a broken wrist? Do you require your class to rearrange themselves for group work? How will that work with a wheelchair or crutches? I once ran an exercise that required students to flip coins – which turned out to be really, really dumb on my part. This was a set of repetitive actions, with a high probability of dropping the coin. This was almost inoperable for people with no issues because of the confined space in the lecture theatre. (Another teaching application is the open book exam – have you given the students enough desk space to open books?)
  3. Simplicity: Make it easy to understand and use what you’ve done, whether students have seen either your work or an example of this type of work before. If you’re using a commonly used format – think carefully before you make subtle changes to it or people will get confused with the new complexity. Be clear, consistent and remove as much unnecessary complexity as possible. Don’t throw everything on to the screen at once but consider the use of staged delivery to provide simple blocks that go together to form a more complex whole.
  4. Forgiveness: Reduce the impact if students do something wrong while working with your material and, from a design perspective, put things together so that it’s hard to go wrong in the first place. Designing your materials so that there is only one obvious way to use them (using good affordances) will mean that students will find it harder to go wrong in the first place. Being able to recover easily reduces the impact of accidental error – which can negatively reinforce behaviour and encourage students to disengage. Scratch-off cards have simple use and easily recovered error conditions, depending upon whether they give instant feedback or not. These can be high affordance/high forgiveness materials and, because of that, very, very useful.

I’ve given you a number of examples but I want to give you an example of bad accessibility, from a recent hotel stay. I went to grab the shampoo and conditioner mini-bottles to put into the shower and I realised that the text on the front was identical for both bottles. I wasn’t sure which was which. I turned the bottles around and, in type so small that I had to squint, I could just make out the text. Turning the bottles around, I had noticed that there was Braille on the bottles – which seemed a bit odd, given that they’d done such bad design on the back. I realised that the Braille was the same on both bottles and all it said was the brand name.

This is, possibly, one of the most irritating things they could have done. Assume that you’re blind. You’ve made your way to the bathroom, finally found the sink, located the bottles, picked them up and (hooray!) they have Braille. Annnnnd,  it’s completely useless. You ask your sighted companion to help you but he or she are long-sighted. Together, angrily, you mix all the bottles up and make Shamditioner. More seriously, this fails Perceptibility (you can’t see which one is which), Operability (the bottles were hard to open as it happened) and Forgiveness (as it was easy to use the wrong product). I’ll give it a pass on Simplicity, only because you don’t really need instructions for Shampoo – putting it in a bottle is sufficiently simple. I may be being generous.

I’m working on a checklist for myself, because I try and consider all this but doing it from a list this long isn’t actually following the rules themselves! When I get the checklist finished, I’ll post it up on the blog.


5 Comments on “Access All Areas: Getting Your Knowledge Into Everyone’s Head”

  1. Darlena says:

    This is one of those things that I never think about until I have someone with special needs in my class. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Alex H says:

    Can you explain what you mean by “staged delivery” in this context?


  3. Alex H says:

    Nicely put. Some people in the humanities would say “an organic whole” in place of “one giant blob” 😉

    But I’m still not sure whether you’re talking about how you organise the content across a whole lecture, or whether you’re referring to the practice of revealing slides one line or element at a time.


    • nickfalkner says:

      Oh, I see. Well, that depends on the slide. If the knowledge block for that slide, which has been constructed to be consumable as one slide, needs me to shift emphasis by revelation then I’ll use it. However, this is often used to mask bad slides because people reveal entire sentences at once. If your slide is such that having all of the information on the screen at once is potentially confusing, I’d be tempted to put it across multiple slides.


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