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Universal Design

Content is the most important part of any electronic or information resource (EIR). Whether you have a poster explaining the details of an event or a document explaining the steps to apply to a program, it is the message (i.e. content) you are trying to get across that is the most important part of the EIR. A message typically includes:

  • Tone, expression and/or attitude
  • Who, what, when, where, why and/or how

While all of this can be expressed in a textual/verbal only format, which is the most universally translatable with assistive technology, we often use other engaging methods like graphics, audio and video content, which are not readily accessible to all users. Multimedia elements need additional assistance, despite the capabilities of our technology. We provide guidelines, the additional steps needed, to ensure your message is going to the entire audience and not just a select group.

Universal design makes your content inclusive to all members of our community without segregating or stigmatizing any group. It provide a single message, not separate messages identifying special groups. This equitable experience also takes into account safety, security and privacy in equal ways.

Note in the following examples in the physical and virtual environments how accommodations may remove barriers but create inequitable experiences, rendering them non-universal in design.

Comparing Physical and Virtual Universal Design Issues: Quality of Accommodations
Universal Design Concerns Physical Environment Virtual Environment
Example 1 Two drastically different entrances: A building has two entrances. The first one in the front of the building, and it is nicely decorated with a staircase leading up to the door. The second one is in the back of the building with a ramp for wheelchair access next to trash bins. It looks very unkempt, possibly because of the visible trash bins. Automated closed captioning of videos: A video hosting platform attempts to ease the stress of video maintainers by programming technology to recognize oral language in the audio tracks and display them in the closed captioning for the hearing impaired. The technology is not very accurate and sometimes displays poor choices of words, including unintentional racial slurs and foul language.
Was an accommodation provide ? Yes. The barrier of the staircase in at the front entrance was accommodated by providing a ramp at the back entrance. Sort of. The barrier of the audio track for the hearing impaired was accommodated by closed captioning. However, the content wasn’t checked for accuracy.
Did it consider safety, security and/or privacy? Not sure. The front entrance may have more traffic as well as a welcoming area for people to hang out and chat, which provide for a community-sourced type of security. However, the back entrance is not as pleasant to use given the location of the trash bins, so fewer people may opt to use this entrance or hang out there, making it far less secure and uncomfortable. Yes. Those who need closed captioning can turn it off/on as needed, whether they have a temporary or permanent hearing impairment.
Was it an equitable experience? No. The environment changes drastically between the front and back entrances into the building. People would more likely opt to use the front entrance if they had the ability to do so, leaving those who have no choice a far less pleasant experience being forced to use the back entrance only. To improve the environment, the trash bins should not be so visible and the entrance should be kept up, making the back entrance as pleasant and friendly as the front entrance. No. The audio translation to closed captioning was poorly inaccurate and confusing to the hearing impaired. It did not provide the same content, and it require additional mental processing to guess at the intended message.
Comparing Physical and Virtual Universal Design Issues: Undue Burden
Universal Design Concerns Physical Environment Virtual Environment
Example 2 The long and winding sidewalk: A building has a main entrance with stairs and a ramp. It is nicely decorated, warm and friendly. A short sidewalk leads up to the stairs. However, the ramp can only be accessed via a separate sidewalk that takes a much longer and winding curve around the campus grounds than the one accessible by the stairs. The event poster: A website promotes an event via an image of a poster that contains all the information about the event. All the textual information is on the image, so it cannot be highlighted or read. Instead, alternative text is provide that states all the information on the poster, which is considerable (over 125 characters).
Was an accommodation provide ? Yes. The barrier of the staircase at the main entrance was accommodated by providing a ramp. Sort of. The barrier of unreadable text on the image was accommodated by placing it in the alternative text. However, depending on the channel, screen readers may not be able to read more than about 125 characters, so the rest is lost on the user with the visual impairment.
Did it consider safety, security and/or privacy? Not sure. True, a ramp is now on a very welcoming entrance, providing the safety of the highly trafficked hangout. However, that is only at the entrance itself. While a sidewalk is made available to the ramp, it appears to be causing an undue burden, which may exhaust or wear on the individuals trying to get to the entrance more than those headed for the stairs. They are also exposed to the elements for a considerably longer time. Somewhat. While alternative text on an image ensures only those who cannot see the content of the poster may view it, they have an undue burden of processing it, should it have important information or a call-to-action. To assist with attendance, most users will want to copy the information over into a calendar application (an event call-to-action). In this case, an undue burden is placed on everyone because there is no easy way to get the date, time, location, etc. into a calendar, more so for screen reader users as they cannot start and pause the reading of the alternative text in order to copy it into the calendar.
Was it an equitable experience? No. The environment is quite different on the two paths, despite both of them leading to the same entrance. An undue burden is placed on those who require that ramp to enter the building. The sidewalk to the ramp should be designed to be as easily navigable (e.g. protected from elements, shorter where physically possible to cut corners) as the one to the stairs. No. While all groups have the undue burden of typing out all the information, screen reader users have no start and pause functionality while reading the alternative text, making them have to listen to the entire text repeatedly.
Comparing Physical and Virtual Universal Design Issues: Segregation
Universal Design Concerns Physical Environment Virtual Environment
Example 3 Signs for groups: A building has a main entrance, nicely decorated, with stairs and a ramp. Both are accessible by the same sidewalk, which forks to the stairs and ramp in a mostly equitable distance. A sign at the fork points to the stairs, “Non-wheelchair Users Only,” and another sign at the fork points to the ramp, “Wheelchair Users”. Unembedded alternative text for event poster: An email promotes an event via an image of a poster that contains all the information about the event. All the textual information is on the image, with no alternative text embedded in the image itself for a screen reader to read. Instead, alternative text is provide below the image that states all the information on the poster with the heading, “Alternative Text”.
Was an accommodation provide ? Yes. The barrier of the staircase at the main entrance was accommodated by providing a ramp. Yes. And no. The barrier of unreadable text on the image was accommodated by including the text from the poster below the image of the full poster. However, the platform being used allowed for alternative text to be embedded on the image, which is a legal requirement: if the image is not defined as decoration within the alternative text, that text should instead describe the image. Providing no alternative test places makes the image’s value questionable. What if it was an entry or application form for the event? The screen reader user would not know everything they needed.
Did it consider safety, security and/or privacy? For the most part, but it did breach privacy by segregating the groups at the fork. It may be obvious that a wheelchair user must use a ramp, but such a statement does not need to be verbally communicated. For the most part, but it did breach privacy by segregating the groups on the email message. It may be obvious that a screen reader will read the text on the email, but such a statement does not need to be verbally communicated. Nor should the alternative text be provide anywhere outside the image if the platform supports embedding alternative text.
Was it an equitable experience? No. The environment is discriminatory by segregating groups at the fork to the ramp and stairs. No signs are require regarding who can enter through which entryway. No. The environment is discriminatory by segregating groups. Visual users see a repeat of the content which can be construed as an insult to their intelligence (e.g. having to repeat oneself for someone to understand). Screen reader users are not sure what was actually in the image that may be important content, since the imagery was not separated from the event information into highlightable (and readable) text.

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