The use of technology will always require adaptation

This past Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) I was fortunate enough to catch part (as in a wee bit) of Inclusive Design 24 (#ID24). The Paciello Group held 24 one-hour webinars concerning various matters dealing with accessibility. It was really quite the productive gesture to, and I’ll quote, “celebrate efforts worldwide to ensure people with disabilities have full and equal access to the web.”

Remember — and not to suggest this was The Paciello Group’s intent when offering their statement about #ID24 — “if what one is unable to do continues to be used as a means of defining disability […] then every single individual on this planet is disabled.” That statement brilliantly sums up an intent of GAAD quite nicely, so says me. It’s all inclusive.

And one “webinar” in particular got my noodle cooking. The Billy Gregory’s talk, 10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started in Digital Accessibility. Not that any talk I was able to tune into wasn’t great. But it was this one, however, that was personally relevant. In the sense I found myself thinking a lot about how I’d answer Billy’s proclamation.

My experiences as a user

I’ve been at this digital accessibility game a long time. I came at it originally as a user. Then relatively soon thereafter I started my training to become a web developer. But, honestly, what I’ve done in my developer travels ever since is largely beside the point. It’s my experiences as a user which are of most value. And I’ve only just recently begun to truly appreciate that fact.

I’m a user with all sorts of valuable first hand “accessibility” geared experience fidgeting on the web — yes, my characterizing my experiences as fidgety is putting it politely. And I’m trying to take those lessons and practically transition myself, with those experiences intact, into being an “accessibility” focused developer. Aiming to build from that perspective.

Quite the peculiar situation

Following what was a rather catastrophic car accident I was put in quite the peculiar situation — relative to the way in which I lived the 21+ years of life before my accident that is. At first, after awaking from my coma, I was only able to blink my eyes in reaction to basic questions, seeing how I was locked-in. Essentially I was uncommunicative at that point. I was unable to communicate anything past simple yes (one blink) or no (two blink) answers. It was hoped getting me access to a computer would solve some of my communication issues — emphasis on some.

Try not to forget, this was back in very early 1997. Still somewhat early days for the sorts of Assistive Technology (AT) I’d require, as I recall. And the initial means of access I was provided, switch access and row column scanning, was largely still an inaccessible technology, ironically enough. It was prohibitively expensive. I cannot recall any specifics regarding its price (or its name, for that matter), but even for a hardware/ software solution built with accessibility foremost in mind, its price was high. I’d argue too high.

However, not long following receiving that switch access — which was in reality extremely liberating by the way — my condition changed. To the point where I was able to use my arms and hands again. So I was able to make use of the keyboard (and mouse keys) to control a computer. And yes, I eventually moved on to using a mouse — the least effective means I use to access a computer, still — within a year and a half (I’d guess) of first regaining the use of my arms/ hands.

Given our nature as individuals

Which brings me to my point: I see great value in the ability to adapt. Granted my assessment I just detailed is not directly translatable to everyone’s experiences using technology. But I do think my broader point is. Given our nature as individuals we aren’t content doing anything in a particular fashion. Or more accurately, doing the same thing, the same way as anyone else. It’s our greatest strength; when it comes to problem solving. But it’s also our most pathetic weakness; with respect to our willingness to treat each other with such indifference.

Now I’m not suggesting it is a users responsibility to be able to adapt to anything in order to use the web. Only “nothing in life is, or ever will remain, static. Least of all the gamut of ever changing ability to access technology.” There’s a lot we can learn in that.

Back to it

And getting back to Billy’s proclamation, or at least the spirit of his proclamation: the thing I’d very quickly come to know when I started in accessibility was the second after that switch was placed on the pillow beside my head in that hospital room, no matter how slick the technology, it will always require an element of adaptation on the users part to access it. We aren’t wired for this shit. It’s a learning process. Both for the user and especially for the developer.

2 thoughts on “The use of technology will always require adaptation”

  1. I think you’ve hit on an critical point about technology’s essential nature, Johnny. It subtly shapes us, transforms our ways of working and thinking and living. It’s never “intuitive” or “seamless” or “full of possibilities” or “at your control” in the way that the marketing rhetoric of technology companies suggests. Instead, it reconfigures us in remarkable ways, some good and others not so much. At our best, humans are intensely adaptable and always-changing creatures; digital technology exists in large part because of this human ability to adapt and learn by doing.

    What I find interesting is that we take for granted adaptation on the part of users. It’s so integral we don’t, as you say, even notice it. This is where the mythology of “intuitive” user interfaces comes from–the pervasiveness of human adaptability.

    What we don’t think of very often is that the adaption could be bi-directional. A conversation. As we adapt to thinking with and interacting with software, why don’t we expect it to adapt to us? Why don’t we, as users, expect that we can shape the software and its capabilities to suit our needs, tastes, and habits? We have some inspiring first examples with things like responsive web design, but imagine if, as we adapted to the capabilities of our technologies, it adapted to us. Not just to sell us new products, but to actually form an integral conversation between user and technology.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Colin. Appreciated.

      I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about our need, and what is required, for us to adapt to anything. But you bring up a great point, with bi-directional adaptability.

      I’m not exactly sure how accurate this statement may be, but could a reason why we don’t expect software to adapt to us simply a matter of we feel insecure in ourselves? Meaning when we encounter problems using software we tend to jump to blaming ourselves for our inability, rather than any short comings in the software?

      How realistic of an expectation would expecting software adapt to us actually be — asking rhetorically of course? That’s ridiculously interesting.

      Thanks for bringing it up.

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