WritersUA day 2: Can technical communicators improve people’s lives?

With the steady stream of bad news we get daily, we all would like to know what we can contribute to make people’s lives better. Shawn Henry of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) said that making products and user assistance more accessible is “[t]he one thing you can do to improve people’s lives around the world.”

To prove her point, she told the story about John Slayton who lost his eyesight from retinitis pigmentosa. When he was diagnosed with leukemia, he tried to research his condition on several Web sites. Because those sites didn’t work well with screen readers, he couldn’t find the critical medical information he needed. He had also depended on a blogging site where he posted information about his condition. When he didn’t post anything for weeks, friends and family assumed the worst. He finally posted, “They fixed it.” When the blogging site did an update, they made it difficult for him to post. When they finally fixed the site, he was able to send updates again.

Shawn’s point is that accessibility isn’t just about being Section 508 compliant. It’s about making products and user assistance usable to people in different situations. And “those people” can be us too. According to a chart she showed, around two thirds of us will have some sort of disability by age 75. As our population ages, the need for easily accessible products will grow.

Accessibility isn’t just about disability. Producing well designed and structured products make them usable for people with the latest technology. When her boss wanted to view her Web site on her new smartphone (back when they were new), it worked perfectly because the site could work on the smartphone’s limited browser.

Shawn’s talk reminded us that when we make products more usable for our users, we ultimately benefit. It’s, as she described it, “enlightened self-interest.” Someday, we might be the ones who need that adaptive technology and accessibility.