Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design
4 comments | Posted: 29 March 08 in Books, by Nathan Smith
While I was in Austin, TX for SXSW, I ran into Shawn Lawton Henry at a Mongolian BBQ restaurant. This brought to mind that she sent me a copy of her most recent book, Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design. When she asked if I’d read it yet, I sheepishly said that I had, knowing what she meant was “Are you going to write a review?” I figured it’s about time I share my thoughts on this handbook of accessibility knowledge.
The first thing that stands out to me about this book is that the online version is freely available. That’s right, one of the world’s leading accessibility experts has written an authoritative book, but is not charging anything for it. To me, that speaks volumes about the sincerity of the cause, helping others altruistically. The print version is available for purchase, because somebody has to pay for chopping down all those trees, not to mention the cost of printing.
Another nice aspect of this book is while it brings a lot of new content about the subject, there are choice quotes from Shawn’s previous work, a book she co-authored entitled Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance (review here). At first, I was a bit confused by her self-quotes, but it makes sense. If something about accessibility is still true, it bears repeating! It’s an effective way to emphasize the point: accessibility matters.
In fact, her work is not unlike much of the reading I’ve done on theology. Many professors will reference their own writings. This is not because of laziness or ego, but rather a way to tell the readers where they can find the full text if need be, and giving proper attribution to the original work’s publisher.
Anyway, enough literary criticism, and on to the crux of what it’s all about. The basic premise is that as web designers, instead of extrapolating what we think accessibility means, we need to see how people actually interact with assistive devices, both on the web and in everyday activities. In that regard, Just Ask is to accessibility what Getting Real is to project management.
To that end, case studies and real world examples are given throughout the book. The studies are done in the form of personas, showing how an individual might interact with a cell phone or TTY machine. There are also specific instructions on how to interview people sensitively, and screen those who would make good testers for your products or websites. Lawton also explains what constitutes a good usability test, carefully guiding someone through the process, while trying not to skew the outcome. She also cautions not to jump to conclusions over findings, rather taking a holistic look at the data.
Overall, this is an excellent book, and a must-read for anyone serious about thoroughly understanding web accessibility and the periphery around it, as there’s far more than just what happens in the browser. The fact it’s available online at no charge means that you’ve really got no excuse!
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