iSchool ACE Lab challenges the lack of accessibility in technology

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The goal is in the name, the Accessible Computing Experiences (ACE) Lab and their mission uniting students from information and computer science backgrounds to problem-solve issues surrounding the lack of accessibility in technology. 

This lab is run by human-computer interaction researcher professor Jacob O. Wobbrock. In his lab, housed in the iSchool, he uses a design philosophy called ability-based design to create accessible solutions for people with disabilities.

This methodology is what originally attracted Ph.D. student Abdullah Ali to the lab. 

“The devices that we build should be smart enough, should be capable enough to adapt themselves to fit our abilities and not the other way around,” Ali said, describing the philosophy of ability-based design.

Ali explained that using this methodology leaves students in the ACE lab and many others outside of it puzzling over the question of why we keep designing inaccessible products.

In 2007, the lab redesigned the UI for Apple’s accessibility software. It all started by asking fundamental questions about how the iPhone worked.

“If you’re blind, how could you interact with anything on the screen?” the team asked. 

Thinking back to the days of the not-so-smooth, unbreakable flip phones — picture yourself running your fingers over the keys –– you might feel an assortment of bumps and textures. This assortment is called tackled landmarks.

These landmarks allowed visually impaired users to locate and know what buttons they are using, but the slick glass screen on smartphones does not facilitate the same interaction. 

Hacking the original iPhone, the ACE lab started to develop and upload accessible software for blind and visually impaired users. Slide Rule, the project that emerged from the research,  allowed the user to use special types of taps and touches to make movements on the screen and use audio feedback to let users know their location. 

Apple subsequently used the lab’s research to develop VoiceOver, a widget that helps visually impaired users in 2009.

Earlier this month, the ACE lab that made Slide Rule will receive the Paper Impact Award, an award given to an innovation with an impact over ten years. 

Even though the ACE has completed influential research, Wobbrock and his lab continue to question the level that we value accessibility, pushing students to raise that bar to a higher standard.  


“Just because [some accessible designs] are not easily monetizable, just because they don’t produce multinational corporations and become, you know, big fancy trade shows and things like that,” Wobbrock said. “It doesn't mean that they aren't valuable.”

According to UW census data for 2017 undergraduates alone, there were 1,997 students who reported having disabilities, highlighting the need for ACE’s work. 

Apart from their previous research, Ali and his fellow researchers are already thinking about the rapidly emerging world of virtual reality (VR) and its lack of accessibility. 

As many creative minds are developing the next iPhone XR or the next Snapchat, people are not looking at designs through accessible lenses. But Ali highlights that accessibility is more than just the device, but how that device affects the user. 

“There are many things in [...] American society today that are considered valuable because they are heavily associated with money,” Wobbrock said. “But I think it's very important to separate valuable things from monetizable things.”

Reach contributing writer Rochelle Bowyer at Twitter: @ rw_bow

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