World Usability Day 2009: Sustainability and Accessibility

Today marks another World Usability Day with the theme of "Sustainability".

What is World Usability Day?

World Usability Day was founded to ensure that the services and products important to life are easier to access and simpler to use. Each year, it has a specific focus and is honored around the world on the second Thursday of the month of November.

The sustainability theme is divided into four "pillars":

  • Environmental
  • Social
  • Economical
  • Technology, Tools & Resources

So where is accessibility? Ask 10% of our planet.

The United Nations Factsheet on Persons with Disabilities states that around "10 per cent of the world's population, or 650 million people, live with a disability. They are the world's largest minority." Can we ignore the world's largest minority while designing for a more sustainable world?

How do we get from "sustainability" to "accessibility"?

Some of the thoughts that popped into my head when thinking about this:

  • Light bulbs. The humble incandescent light bulb is being accused of harming our environment. Many countries have started to phase it out. However, many people feel that it is the only artificial light source that provides a good source of light in which to work or read. Who wins? The environment or the people who have vision issues? Will a quality replacement that does not burden the environment be made commercially available in time?
  • Wheelchairs. This is just one of many devices that some people need, but cannot get – if it wasn't for the existence of organizations like Wheelchair Foundation. Many assistive devices exist to let people get on with their lives. After all, even people with disabilities want to dance [Wheelchair Dancers Organization (WDO)] or play basketball [International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF)]
  • The World Wide Web. OK. This is a biggie for such a short article. There are so many people connecting to other people around the world thanks the World Wide Web. (Thanks, Sir Tim!) I can connect with people around the world and exchange all sorts of ideas, and no, I'm not talking about what we ate for breakfast. I am talking about sharing resources, collaborating on projects, inspiring to greatness, and leaving a trail of knowledge for others to play with and reshape, etc., etc. I categorize that as sustaining life!
  • People. "Make better use of our resources" is one phrase I saw on the World Usability Day site. People are resources. We can all contribute to the design of a more sustainable world, including that 10% where the need for such a world may be strongest.
  • Heating and cooling. Have you ever tried to work in an office that was too hot or too cold? You could not think straight or your fingers froze to the keyboard. Many of us live and work in climates that require some sort of climate control so we can function. Some of us could even fall ill or die if there was no climate control. Sustainable energy resources are necessary for decent home and office environments. (The topic of those who don't have an office or home, well …)
  • Energy-saving hardware and appliances. Did you ever hear of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine? It requires electricity. You may know people who don't have a visible disability, yet people you know could be sleeping with this device at night to save their lives. They need electricity. There are many, many smart gadgets and devices that exist to save lives or improve life quality, and which require electricity or batteries. It would be wonderful if we could make low-tech versions of some devices and spread the energy burden in that manner.

I'll stop here. This is meant to set your thoughts in motion.

Continue thinking along these lines or try to map my thoughts here to the pillars mentioned earlier. Go back to the UN factsheet. Try to map those items to the pillars, too.

I like the two pillar descriptions in the following quote from the World Usability Day site.

Human-centered design directly supports the first two pillars of sustainability:

Economic – matching a design to user's needs and abilities enhance its utilization, quality, and efficiency, thus providing cost effective solutions and reducing the likelihood that systems products and services will be rejected by their users

Social – taking a human-centered approach results in systems, products and services which are better for the health and wellbeing of their users, including users with disabilities

Those are great mindsets for continuing this train of thought on sustainability and accessibility.

Where's the techcomm angle?

Ah, but again, technical communication is where people are. Communicating the concepts of sustainability – through product descriptions, how-to documents, regulations, and so on – requires the skills of people working in some way with technical communication. I think readers know by now that the toolkit of a technical communicator contains "accessibility". Our readers are also aware that a technical communicator can depend on accessibility in authoring tools, or the workplace, or the home.

Sustainability and accessibility are topics for every day, not just World Usability Day. I don't go into great detail here because I have merely started a conversation. I don't have all the answers! Let's all continue this thread in the comments, on Twitter, on your blog. Today, and every day.