Tech Ability: Making the Web Work For All Users

By Jessica Greene
|  Saturday, Feb 6, 2010  |  Updated 8:06 AM PDT
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Inside Yahoo's Accessibility Lab

NBC Bay Area

Yahoo's Accessibility Lab is aimed at helping people with disabilities use the Web to it's fullest extent.

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Tech Ability: Making the Web Work for Disabled Surfers

Alan Brightman and Victor Tsaran are "re-equipping lives" every day at Yahoo's Accessibility Lab.
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He lies completely still, disabled and barely able to twitch his thumb but he's a hard-core, high-scoring online gamer. She can only clench her teeth and move her eyes but she does all her shopping and banking online. He's blind but tweets, types and downloads from iTunes daily.

These are just some of the stories told at Yahoo's Accessibility Lab, where Alan Brightman and Victor Tsaran are "re-equipping lives" everyday.

It's not a very big office. Maybe just about the size of a six-pack of cubicles. But inside this second-floor room on the company's Sunnyvale campus, doors are opening for millions of people who were told they can’t or thought they couldn’t anymore.

Brightman is Yahoo’s senior policy director. He is an advocate, educator and innovator. Think of him as the father of computer accessibility. He founded the Apple Worldwide Disability Solutions Group and spearheaded the development of the Universal settings control panel (Mac users – check the system preferences). After 13 years at Apple, Brightman moved over to Yahoo to make their network universally accessible for the site's huge base of users.

Brightman and Tsaran host dozens of tech engineers and developers from companies all over the high-tech world. They put the company leaders through a series of simulations to experience what it might feel like to try to use a computer to surf the web or send an email, without the use of their hands or eyes.

He hands them a ball and asks them to hold it with both hands and type their name; straps goggles on their faces that are fitted with special lenses to mimic vision impairments so they can get the feeling of being differently-abled in the computer age.

Tsaran doesn't need goggles to make him realize the difficulties of tech navigation with no vision. Yahoo's senior program manager for accessibility, he's blind and spends his days helping to develop software that makes Yahoo easy to use, even for people who can't see what they're clicking on.

Answering the question "why would I want my product to be accessible for people with disabilities?" is an easy one for tech developers after they've been guided through the simulations, Tsaran says. As they upgrade the product, they start thinking about keeping it accessible for everyone.

"We don't do this just because we're nice guys." Brightman says. "Even though we are."

If feeling helpless in front of a computer screen -- even for a simulation -- isn't enough to make the business leaders get it, there's always the bottom-line approach.

"There are 60 million disabled people in the U.S. alone and they have an annual aggregate income of a trillion dollars." Brightman says. "So if I'm building a store that they can't get into, I'm a fool."

There are reminders all over the room about what’s happening in here. The purple dots in a pattern on the wall aren’t just some dotcommer’s idea of art. It spells out ACCESS in Braille and a poster across the room echoes the same message, only hidden among colored dots that might look like random spots to someone who’s color-blind. And fresh notes on the white board that
pose the question:" Do disabled people use the Web differently?"

Brightman and Tsaran are looking to future and integrating accessibility into mobile devices. That presents a new challenge, even to the team working to solve the problems of accessibility.

"This is a work in progress." Tsaran says. "It's never going to be perfect because the minute it's perfect we know it's not -- because we gotta do something new."

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