Acessibility Can Be A Designer’s Best Friend

Here’s a scenario familiar to many instructional and visual designers – an ambitious instructor (or other non-design savvy professional) creates a product that can only be described as well… hideous, tacky, amateurish or maybe just “needing a little adjustment.” The colors may be too bright, the BLINK tag may still be in use, items may be moving randomly or an unusual cursive font may have been selected for the entire page. Or a video may be too long, text too technical for anyone but a graduate student or any number of common beginner mistakes.

The trick has been how to suggest changes without offending the sensibilities of the author. One strategy that can be helpful is to cite “accessibility.” Even though there are well-established design principles that should be observed, they can seem subjective unless presented correctly. Accessibility, on the other hand, is becoming more familiar as a legalistic principle a lot of tech people try to comply with. They seem much more objective (while remaining exotic enough for authors to realize that this Web stuff has many facets).

And ironically, a lot of good design principles are also good accessibility principles. The blink tag is bad for people with epilepsy, and low vision users definitely need good (soothing) color contrast as well as standard sans-serif fonts. A lot of usability principles, especially in terms of consistency and structure, mirror recommendations for learners with cognitive disabilities.

Accessibility can also be invoked to explain why some “trick problems” should be avoided or why it’s a good idea to provide some additional resources (e.g. PowerPoint lectures/Podcast). You’re not making it “too easy” for students, but rather ensuring that diverse audiences are getting a chance to learn.

Of course, there are other ways to disseminate design theory to non-designers, but I am pleasantly surprised at how many instructors are genuinely interested and sometimes pleased to learn how to use accessibility to improve the overall design for everyone.

I would warn that accessibility should be used as a tickler and not as a threat. Although I have fallen into the trap of waving accessibility like a red flag, it really should be used as a yellow caution flag. In most cases, I feel that accessibility principles should be used to improve a product or lesson plan, but not be so cumbersome that innovation is blocked. Accessibility can evolve with technology.

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