Accessibility is Free

Accessibility is mostly good design. Good design is generally accessible with minimal extra work, while bad design creates new inaccessibilities. I witnessed a vivid example of this not 30 minutes ago when I saw a blind man struggle to get inside the building where I’m working. If the doors had been designed correctly, he wouldn’t have had any issues relating to his disability.

Don Norman gives an extensive and compelling treatment of door-design in, The Design of Everyday Things. I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

Here’s a summary: any door that says Push or Pull is a failure. Doors are very very simple devices, with very very simple controls. The door itself should unambiguously tell the user how to operate it. Having to print an instruction manual on the door is ludicrous. A push-bar implicitly means “push” a, pull-hook communicates “pull”.
Reminds me of my middle school.
This classic Far Side comic is funny, because the door-knob clearly affords pulling. The failure is entirely the gifted user’s fault.

What isn’t so funny is someone struggling with the door design at the Peter T. Flawn Academic Center.


As you can see, two sides of the same door door, both with the same faux-marble handles that clearly afford pushing — except you have to pull the push-bar to get inside. Lots of people are confused, and frustrated, when they try pushing to get inside. Most of them figure it out pretty quickly when they see PULL. It’s not so simple when you can’t see.

Here’s the particular situation I saw: a blind gentleman was guided to the door by his dog, and started feeling along the wall until he found the handle. There were no indications about how to operate the door except the shape of the handle, which clearly afforded pushing. PULL was not etched in braille across the surface of the handle. When pushing didn’t work, he tried pulling, but he was positioned next to the hinges, so he didn’t have the mechanical advantage to budge the door. At this point he, understandably, got very confused, and tried pushing/pulling again for several seconds. He finally got inside, but it was a painful and lengthy process.

The failure of the initial pull is important. A proper pull-handle, like the one in the Far Side comic, can’t be grasped in such a way that there is insufficient mechanical advantage to operate the door. The incompetent use of a push-bar caused a new failure mode: incorrectly grasping the handle. (I understand constraints of time and money. But someone had to pay extra for those faux-marble push-bars. So I’m chalking this up to incompetence not limited resources.)

To paraquote Jeffery Veen” when good interface design is practiced as a craft, and not a consolation, accessibility comes for free.”

Explore posts in the same categories: Accessibility, Bugs, Design, Usability

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