Author note: This blog is crossposted from the HuMetricsHSS website. I am the digital specialist on the HuMetricsHSS team and the project manager on the Commons platform.
I’m the digital specialist for HuMetricsHSS and I wanted to talk a bit about how both our values as a team and my values work together to inform our work. I was delighted to attend the 2023 axe-con conference last week. Axe-con is an accessibility conference organized by Deque, a company that provides accessibility testing, tools, and education to the developer community. It is a free conference, and all of the sessions are recorded. Those who missed it can still register for free and access the content, and if you have interest I highly recommend it. Attending the conference has underscored the need to make a more concerted effort to make inclusive design an integral part of our process.
One of the things this team has tried hard to do over the years is to make digital accessibility part of the process from the beginning. While our digital tools are not perfect (nothing ever is!), we’ve made a number of updates to work toward being fully accessible including working to ensure that full text descriptions are available on non-decorative images, using non-color indicators for links, creating closed captions for all of our videos, and adopting the Atkinson Hyperlegible font for the visually impaired for all of our digital products (including PDFs). When crafting our white paper, Walking the Talk, we ensured that all of our interactives and graphs had proper descriptions, the PDF versions were screen reader-compliant, and that the online version of the paper on Manifold had the ability to adjust text size and contrast. We’re currently starting the process of another major redesign of our website (the current version launched in July 2020) and will work to build on this foundation.
In my role as digital specialist, and as a librarian with a background in information management and user experience, the axe-con conference has been a source of actionable information on the ways in which we can work to make the digital world a more equitable place. It’s one thing to state your values, but enacting them requires deep consideration and work. UX research and evaluation is often overlooked in the interest of completing a project quickly while controlling the costs of development. We are a small team, and our website is not terribly complex. That said, understanding the needs of the wider community is an opportunity to engage in a deeper and more meaningful way. As we think through the information architecture and new design of the website we will involve a wide range of community members throughout the process. This structure will allow us to test out features to determine the usability and accessibility of content.
In thinking through how to enact our team values in regards to our digital work, I’d like to consider the ways in which inclusive design makes technology better for everyone.
Closed captioning on television and video, for example, was originally developed for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community yet many hearing people use captions for all sorts of reasons, including not disturbing our family members or neighbors when living in a communal space. By engaging in inclusive design, we improve the overall experience for everyone.
Things to Think About
According to the US Centers for Disease Control 2022 statistics, about 26% of Americans have some type of disability. That includes 11.1% who have mobility issues (that could impact the use of a mouse or keyboard), 10.9% have cognitive issues (that can include dyslexia, dyscalculia, mental illness, brain injury, and stroke), 5.7% who are hearing impaired, and 4.9% who are vision impaired. The effects of long COVID may yet cause these numbers to rise and many are still experiencing brain fog, fatigue, and even mobility and nervous system issues.
For me this is professional and personal: I am a person with disabilities, one of which is temporary while the other is permanent. While attending this year’s axe-con, I’ve dealt with the wrist of my dominant hand in a brace due to a temporary injury that makes using a trackpad and typing difficult. Thankfully, a voice-to-text application has been helpful in writing this blog. The video recordings of sessions and the transcripts provided at axe-con helped me to participate fully without taking the detailed notes I normally take at such conferences. In addition, I also have dyscalculia, which is a cognitive disability that involves the understanding and comprehension of numbers and mathematics. It wasn’t until I was a junior in high school that I was diagnosed, and it is something that I continue to deal with as an adult. Funny enough, I’ve found that the Atkinson Hyperlegible font that the HuMetricsHSS adopted last year, which clearly differentiates numbers from letters like 0 and O, is helpful to me when reading text. While my mobility is temporarily impaired, my difficulty in doing math and remembering numbers in sequence is permanent. Most of us will likely experience a temporary disability at some point in our lives, while others may experience age-related vision, hearing impairments, and mobility issues that become permanent. Understanding the ways in which I have used technology and tools has positively impacted the way I look at solving access issues professionally.
The Values at Play
The HuMetricsHSS values framework includes the values of equity and community. In her 2023 axe-con keynote, disability activist Imani Barbarin discusses the importance of involving the community as a co-conspirator and partner. By not involving disabled people in the process Barbarin states that we are essentially engaging in discrimination. Accessibility is not something that can be achieved through following a checklist, and disabled people are diverse in population and ability. We must engage and involve the community and not just rely on guidelines and requirements to truly achieve equity by being intentional about how we go about it. While things like the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are a good start, involving disabled people in the process early and throughout the process is key. Michelle Williams’ excellent session on UX research, Research Through Broken Lenses: The Need to ‘Shift Left’ in UX Research, and BARD Mobile’s session, User Research and Personas for BARD Mobile, offer actionable paths forward in involving and including a wide range of users with varied abilities in the design and throughout the build of a project.
As the team member primarily responsible for our digital work I admit that I am not an expert in inclusive design or accessibility but I am learning more every day. In addition to working on HuMetrics I am also the project manager for Humanities Commons, which is also beginning its own redesign and expansion. I work regularly with our Mesh Research/Humanities Commons UX researcher and together we are working with colleagues at Michigan State University who actively engage in this work. One of the reasons I wanted to write this post is to engage our community in helping us be inclusive and also to hold us accountable.
The HuMetricsHSS team often discusses how to enact our values when working on any project or idea. Our digital tools and presence are no different. As we begin to think about what our next public face will look like we will reconsider everything from our color palette to the ways in which we use language. Moving forward we will be intentional about including a diverse range of users, including our disabled community members, from all of our intended audiences. The HuMetricsHSS team will make every effort to recruit a diverse set of users for feedback on our designs and functionality in our pursuit of inclusive design as we move into our website redesign project. More importantly, we will work to ensure that all aspects of our website (and any other digital products, including white papers and our workshop kit) meet and exceed accessibility standards by enacting our values of equity and community.
If you are interested in assisting us with evaluation and testing please let us know! Our community is key to ensuring that we create a space that is both welcoming and useful to all.
Armstrong, W., Stengel, W., & Kim, J. (2023, March 16). User research and personas for Bard Mobile – axe-con. axe-con 2023. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from https://www.deque.com/axe-con/sessions/user-research-and-personas-for-bard-mobile/
Barbarin, I. (2023, March 16). Narrative changes on disability – axe-con – deque.com. axe-con 2023. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from https://www.deque.com/axe-con/sessions/narrative-changes-on-disability/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, January 5). Disability impacts all of us infographic. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html
Joyce, A. (2022, January 30). Inclusive Design. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/inclusive-design/
Williams, M. (2023, March 15). Research through broken lenses: The need to ‘shift left’ in UX research. axe-con 2023. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from https://www.deque.com/axe-con/sessions/research-through-broken-lenses-the-need-to-shift-left-in-ux-research/