When I first started thinking about this blog post, I decided to look up dictionary definitions of the words “usable” and “accessible,” just to see what I’d find. According to Merriam-Webster, if something is accessible it is “able to be used or obtained, easy to appreciate or understand.” The definition of usable, on the other hand, is a little less positive: “in good enough condition to be used.”
Well, I can certainly relate to that! I have often read documents that would fit this description. A good example of this is a text-based pdf file that has not been tagged for accessibility. Technically speaking, I can obtain the information, but it is the equivalent of someone who reads print getting a phone bill where the times and amounts are scattered haphazardly on the page. The recipient has to employ some serious detective skills to determine if $17.99 is a credit being applied to their account, or the cost of a phone call they made to Tanzania. I have also had people offer to just read me the information, which is a bit like telling someone using a wheelchair that your building is accessible because when they arrive you will personally carry them up the steps and through the doors. Although this may satisfy Merriam-Webster’s definition of usable, it doesn’t meet accessibility standards or comply with legislation. And it’s also not good customer service!
Ironically, the meaning of “usable” in the field of accessibility is almost the opposite of its dictionary definition. In this context, usability refers to the user experience. A web site could meet all of the requirements for accessibility, but if the most important information is buried somewhere halfway down the page, it’s not likely to get high marks for usability from anyone. Similarly, an audio version of a textbook is accessible, but any student who has tried to study complex math this way will tell you that it does not make for a good user experience.
The idea of a positive user experience does not just apply to people with disabilities. It often happens that disability-related accommodations benefit others as well. Truly accessible web sites tend to be easier for everyone to use. The best examples of this are audiobooks and wheelchair ramps. Audiobooks came into being because someone thought it would be the best way to make additional material available to the blind and visually impaired population. This was true at the time, since embossers and braille translation software had not yet been invented. Audiobooks – or talking books as they were called - also benefited people with cognitive disabilities such as dyslexia. Eventually, someone figured out that sighted people might pay decent money for audiobooks so they could listen in the car or while cleaning the house. Sites like audible.com have long since proved that theory to be true. By the same token, wheelchair ramps and automatic door openers were originally designed for, well, people using wheelchairs. They also just happen to be really handy if you’re pushing a stroller or carrying heavy boxes.
Although I would certainly never downplay the importance of accessibility, usability means a better experience for all of your customers, whether they have a disability or not.
We'll be have having a webinar on Wednesday, October 12 on Usability vs. Accessibility. We’ll discuss the differences between them, how important it is to look at the bigger picture, and will review the formats that will allow you to offer accessible and usable documents.