Access/ibility: Access and Usability for Digital Publishing
The Case for Accessibility as in Usability
When it comes to digital scholarly resources, professionals in libraries, publishing, and academia are likely to be at least somewhat conversant with the issues of access in terms of the open access movement. However, they might be less familiar with the importance of access in terms of usability for a wide range of users with varying abilities and disabilities. Those who already care about open access should make accessibility as in usability central to their theory and practice.
The open access movement has conceived of accessibility as availability—revolutionizing access to information, building libraries and academies without doors. More recently, open access proponents have even begun to think differently about how to actively engage new audiences, creating pathways and processes that go beyond just setting knowledge free. But there are crucial overlaps and elisions between the terms “access” as used by the open access movement and “accessibility” as used by disability rights activists. That is, a definition of access as “free information” is different from a definition that considers how to design information for the broadest possible group of users, what we might call “access as usability.” Accessibility should lead us to think not just about opening doors, but also ensuring that these entrances and pathways are designed from the beginning so that no one needs to come in through the back entrance.
Fortunately, digital media professionals have developed detailed standards—both technical and general—for creating, evaluating, publishing, and distributing accessible digital resources. And there are a number of benefits of adhering to these standards, ranging from avoiding legal penalties for adopting inaccessible design practices to optimizing usability and navigation for all users to improving the findability of digital resources.
- Legal compliance. The flipside of access is exclusion, and luckily there are laws and standards designed to ensure that people with disabilities do not face barriers to access online. Open access proponents who already clearly understand and challenge economic barriers to access are ideally positioned to extend this challenge to ensure that these barriers are removed for all users and that users with a diverse range of needs are consulted and engaged in the design process.
- Usability & Navigation: As proponents of universal design have eloquently and persuasively argued, designers who take into account the needs of people with disabilities actually improve usability for all people. The classic example is the sidewalk curb cut, which was originally designed with wheelchair users in mind but which are now seen as useful for everyone who navigates the built environment. Bringing similar improvements to the digital environment will have similarly wide-ranging positive effects.
- Findability: Designing knowledge to be accessible to the broadest possible range of users, from the beginning, syncs with the goal of finding, being found by, and engaging new audiences, and even the goal of composing to be understood by search engines and translation tools.
Fixing code and altering workflows to incorporate accessibility tools and processes are important and necessary steps, but they are not enough by themselves. If you care about open access, then you can make accessibility as in usability central to your theory and practice. This can be done by incorporating accessibility as in usability as a core component of how you think about open access. This can be done by making accessibility as in usability a core component of how you teach not just the practices but also the principles of open access. And this can be done, as it has been done here, by making arguments about accessibility as in usability a core component of the activism of open access.