A blog about universal and accessible design

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Ugly Laws book tour dates

I am looking forward to seeing Susan Schweik speak and read from her book tonight at Modern Times bookstore in San Francisco.. here are other events related to her new book, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public.

San Francisco: Tuesday July 14 (With "Tiny" Garcia of Poor Magazine,
Leroy Moore, Coalition on Homelessness and the Po' Poets): Modern Times
Bookstore, 888 Valencia St, 7 pm. Focus on connections to continuing
criminalization of poverty today.

Cleveland: Sunday July 26: Barnes and Noble Eton Collection, 28801 Chagrin
Blvd, Woodmere, 2 pm. Focus on Cleveland and Ohio disability history.

Chicago: Tuesday July 28: Access Living, 115 W. Chicago, 6-8:30 pm. RSVP
to Riva, 312-640-1919, rlehrer@accessliving.org. Focus on poor disabled
peoples' resistance to the laws.

Chicago: Wednesday July 29: Women and Children First bookstore, 5233 North
Clark Street, 7:30 pm. Focus on connections betwen the policing of
disability and the policing of gender in the laws.

See http://www.booktour.com/author/susan_schweik

Monday, July 6, 2009

thoughts on the Kindle and computers

As the Chronicle of Higher Ed and others report, the National Federation for the Blind and the American Council of the Blind are suing Arizona State University over its new policy to provide textbooks to students via the Amazon Kindle, a device (as Blind advocates have noted for some time) that has the capacity to read books aloud but does not provide any non-visual prompts (i.e. you cannot get to the audio features if you are visually impaired). It seems that ASU is providing a way for some students to receive their course material electronically, but in a format that others cannot access; this is the definition of unequal access and does seem to this total ADA layperson to be questionable.

These kinds of debates will intensify as more and more electronics come out that use alternative interfaces. Fast Company recently asked top designers, "What Will Cell Phones Look Like 10 Years From Now?" and their responses showed this interest in multi-sensory, flexible computer interactions: phones of the future, they said, will fit on fingertips -- or even IN fingertips -- or will be gone entirely, as we will mine data from "account based networks" that one designer calls "the cloud" (though he is not specific about what kind of device would be used). Touch screen elements are still a curiosity in full-sized computers (2 M out of 300 M PCs sold have them, according to the NY Times, but more are on their way) .

Touch-screens, speaking computers, and interactive devices that are freed from the standard screen/keypad type of interface (like the Wii) have tremendous potential for disabled users. Still, as Jim Tobias of Access on Main Street comments, "we’re just doing target practice here until real stuff shows up" -- that is, a lot of these new devices point in the direction of greater accessibility, but are not there yet. One of the problems is that the makers of products like the Kindle do not integrate awareness of disability into their products from the get-go-- and for those who imagine improvement is inevitable, let's keep in mind that Kindle is already on version 2 without fixing this problem-- in fact the problem is worse now that publishers have some say in whether books can be read aloud. Here are some products that do address a fuller group of users from the start:

- I noted in an earlier post that Google has worked to make touch screens easier to use for visually impaired users. The design team (which includes engineer TV Raman, who is blind) came up with a "relative" touch application for Google's mobile Android operating system. The cleverly named "Eyes-free" shell makes any place the user hits become the center of the screen (for dialing, the first touch locates the 5). Eyes-free has a YouTube channel with videos about the program.

- Australian designer Rhys Cooper recently won a MEX Mobile User Experience award for his Doo Phone, a cell phone interface designed for people with intellectual disabilities. Its simplified menus and large images representing most frequently-called numbers help keep users from getting "lost" in their mobile phone menus. The Doo Phone certainly has promise for a broader population as phones become more and more complex-- and it helps that Cooper designed it for existing mobile platforms.

As for the Kindle in university education, it seems faulty to invest a lot of institutional energy and money in a device that still has a lot of problems from an intellectual property standpoint. Because of its strong Digital Rights Management aspects (i.e. you cannot read a Kindle file on another device), it limits the user to just one interface. Recently Core77 reported on some ID students' designs for smartbooks for Freescale-- they included touch screens, collapsible keyboards, and thin, mobile elements that could be arranged in a variety of ways. As the students brainstormed the design project, they drew inspiration from both mobile phones and video games-- drawing on their own knowledge of the potential for highly flexible and mobile devices. Variety and tactility will be key in this market-- something the Kindle seems still to be working out.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Disability Meets Design meets the press

Alice Rawsthorn reviews Grant Pullin's Disability Meets Design for the NY Times (she writes regularly on design for the International Herald Tribune and others). This is an excellent book that goes beyond anything I have ever read from the design world in terms of really examining both "design" and "disability" as constructed concepts-- as richly varied and variable arenas where human experience can be examined in relationship to the world of objects/spaces. The review picks up on one of Pullin's easiest to grasp examples: that glasses are fashionable, desirable, and not at all discreet products that could also be classified as "assistive devices." It's a great example, as is the design project called HearWear in which designers created prototypes for similarly varied and fashion-conscious hearing aids (pictured below: 'wearhead, the HearWear contribution by Hulger -- a camouflage-patterned set of oversized headphones, with options for a variety of patterns/colors -- which suggests the varied forms that specialized earwear, like sunglasses, might take). Source.
As this book gets attention in the non-disability-related press, this example will appear again and again. It's a good one. But Pullin also discusses design for people who use significant and very visible equipment, such as communication/speaking aids. Pullin also mentions a project in which designers worked in close collaboration with individual children with disabilities to develop products specifically for them. One of the designers created a light-up badge (I think we Americans would say "button") for a girl named Somiya, whose speech is impaired, so that she could quickly and easily add her own voice (so to speak) to an initial encounter. The message she chose was "Somiya says SOD OFF" -- a greeting I find so delightfully pissy as it completely refuses to capitulate to the charitable gaze that is most likely sent her way a lot of the time -- and which infuses a lot of writing about design and disability (below, the badge with its white words on a bright red background). Source.

The SOD OFF button isn't in any of the reviews of Pullin's book, as far as I have seen. I can't help but think this might be because it does not have a feel-good tone -- one that might fit with Rawsthorn's title, "Crafting for the Body and Soul." It's important in our discussion of design for disability to note that it is not just "sub-standard" design that stigmatizes-- it is disability. Design has the power to call into question stereotypes and expectations, and to provide alternatives to existing limitations. HearWear is the low-hanging fruit of that project-- a great example, but one that is still a fairly small target. Pullin's book rejects (implicitly and explicitly) the idea that design for disability is a charitable, "responsible" project -- instead, he argues that it cuts to the core of what design is about, shaping human experience. Even in some of the terms Rawsthorn uses-- noting the "heroes" of Pullin's book -- she retreads some of the same tired ground where disability is a do-gooder project, not just one that makes a lot of sense.