Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design

4 comments | Posted: 29 March 08 in Books, by Nathan Smith

Just Ask - book cover 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.

Web Accessibility - book cover 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!

Discuss This Topic

  1. 1 Natalie Jost

    To me, that speaks volumes about the sincerity of the cause, helping others altruistically.

    Nathan, I love you, I do. :) I just need to pick on you a little because I know how much you value altruism. This phrase seems to imply that you question the sincerity of anyone making money from teaching or writing, or helping others. Maybe I’m reading too much there, but that’s what it felt like just now. I think it’s important that people are able to make a living from their work without being seen as uncharitable or self-serving.

    Back to the topic of the post though… The title of this book reminded me of a sign I saw at a McDonald’s today. I actually started a post about this, but haven’t published it yet. Basically, the sign said to handicapped people, essentially, “just ask if you need help” and it felt strange to me, like they shouldn’t have to ask. It made me imagine a website offering to send someone to your house to help move and click your mouse for you if you have trouble navigating their website. Very kind, but also pretty inconvenient and not really very fair.

     
  2. 2 Nathan Smith

    This phrase seems to imply that you question the sincerity of anyone making money from teaching or writing, or helping others. Maybe I’m reading too much there, but that’s what it felt like just now.

    Natalie: Actually, I think you were reading into it a bit too much. I’m not naïve to the fact that people need to work and pay the bills. I also realize that there is corporate sponsorship around the online version of the book.

    Heck, the book that I co-wrote was a retail venture. I’m certainly not saying one can’t attempt to make a living by writing materials that people can learn from. I’m sorry if that’s the impression I gave. It’s not what I meant.

    I also think you’re misunderstanding the nuance of the book’s title. “Just Ask” is not an instruction to those who need help, but an exhortation to those who have the capability to give it. In her book, she advocates talking to real people to understand their needs. It is web designers who need to “just ask” about accessibility, rather than pontificate over what might be beneficial.

     
  3. 3 Natalie Jost

    Oh sure, of course, I need to read the book. :) It just reminded me of a different thought, sorry to go off topic.

     
  4. 4 Nathan Smith

    No problemo. I think that McDonald’s thing is a good point – People shouldn’t have to ask for assistance at a restaurant or place of business. Yet, not all accessibility needs are readily apparent, especially in the hubbub environment of a fast food joint. It’s still good to let people know that they can ask, just in case someone overlooks them.

     

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