Sommer Panage

iOS Engineer | Accessibility Specialist | Manager

Accessibility is for Every One

tech accessibility

Back when I worked at Apple, on the Accessibility Team, we’d often receive bug reports from customers. Sometimes we’d get hundreds of the same one, and sometimes just a few. However, there was a certain class of reports that this story is about. It went something like this, “Hello, I have this specific disability X. It causes these symptoms and issues for me. When I try to do Y in your product, I cannot.” This bug report always came solo. The combination of disability and use case was so specific there was almost always only one such report.

When I first got one of these, I read it but filed it away to “Future” — with the optimistic mindset that someday we could fix this issue for this one person. A few days later, I noticed a PR go up, from my manager. He’d fixed the bug. I asked him about it. And, for the sake of this story, I wish I could remember his exact words. What I do remember is their meaning tho: “If we can fix it, why wouldn’t we fix it?”

I’m sure there were people paid more than me or even him that would strongly disagree with this approach. That time could have been spent on something “higher impact,” they’d say. “We can’t fix every bug for every single person,” they’d say. And they’d be right, in many senses. But I think his point was simply that sure, we can’t fix every bug for everyone, but we can fix some for some people. And even one person not being able to use their device matters. I recognize the impracticality of this but also humanity. It reminded me that 1:1 human empathy isn’t lost in tech. It reminded me that accessibility is for everyone — actually everyone.

For me this last notion, “accessibility is for everyone,” has always felt conflicting. At the base level, it’s true. Time and time again, whether it be a physical ramp instead of stairs or scaling text sizes on iPhones, we see that accessibility extends beyond its target users to so so many more people. This is often used as an argument for WHY we should be doing accessibility work. And yet, that same thing has also bothered me. What if the work really did only impact those with disabilities? What if the work was only for those who are blind or deaf? What if the work were only so that one person could use their iPhone? I should hope we’d be doing it anyway.

When I observed my manager fixing those somewhat rare issues for specific users, the dual meaning of the phrase sunk in. Accessibility is for everyone - for wide swath of people, accessibility work leads to improved experiences. And, accessibility is also for every one person. Accessibility is the field that will take into account the individual–the variation between individuals. The fact that no two people use their device in exactly the same way, and some people may use it in a way that’s entirely unique. Accessibility is for them too.

For me, the field of accessibility truly needs to live in both worlds. In the world of universal design - thinking about how we can bring access to the most people AND in the world of highly specific work, the world of individual difference with settings and switches that allow people to use their devices exactly in the way that actually works for them.

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