At VoiceThread, we believe universal accessibility means more than just saying we meet a few guidelines in Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act. We do want to make our software usable by all people, and Section 508 does a good job of encouraging that, but we want to go one step further and make it straightforward and pleasant for everyone to use, as well. We want to serve the needs of a person with dyslexia or ADHD, an outdoor classroom with mobile devices, a user in the developing world without high-speed internet, a kindergartner, or an elderly lifelong learner. In our experience, the only way to do this is by thoughtful and sensitive design, with lots of input from our differently-abled users, and that's something that can't be contained in any number of checkboxes.
Input from users is especially important because often accessibility features aren't what we expected. For example, we originally decided not to enable video commenting on VoiceThread, for much the same reason that we usually don't need video for phone conversations: it doesn't add much, and it can be distracting. Then we heard from Rosemary Stifter at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hearing impaired, who wanted her students to be able to use sign language. So we added the feature, and as soon as we saw the students signing their comments (see the example video below), we understood how important it was. Their faces and movements conveyed all the layers of emotion and individuality that led us to create VoiceThread in the first place. Technically, these students were already being served by text commenting, yet so much had been missing.
Still, we knew we had a long way to go, and over the past year we've been collecting feedback about accessibility from the community, consulting peers in the software industry, and seeking advice from experts. What we've found is that accessibility is often "bolted on" as an afterthought, when it should be designed with as much care as the typical-user experience. With this in mind, we started working on our greatest weakness, which was usability by people who are visually-impaired or blind. We decided to create an alternative interface from scratch, specially designed to be used with screen-reading software and other assistive technologies, and we're calling it VoiceThread Universal.
It's far from complete, but we decided to put it out there anyway so that people can start using it and telling us how it can be improved. Our goal is to make it as simple and fun to use as the current VoiceThread.com site, and to do that we need your help. What does accessibility mean to you, how can we push our technology to make that happen, and how can we ensure that everyone is included? We hope you will join us in this conversation and help us redefine what it means to be accessible.