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‘Circuitous navigation, impossible targets & a giant mouse’: An accessibility profile

Posted by Kate Morris on May 29, 2024 12:10 PM

An interview with Web Usability Director, Dr Sarah Burton-Taylor.

Dr Sarah Burton-Taylor is one of the founding Directors of Web Usability. We caught up with her as part of our Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) profile series. Sarah discusses how technology has empowered her independence whilst living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) plus the barriers she faces and the impact this has on her work and research.

Headshot of Sarah, smiling to camera wearing a spotty pink top

A glimpse into Sarah’s life

Sarah has advanced secondary MS, an auto-immune disease. She is a tetraplegic wheelchair user. The advanced nature of her MS has resulted in the ‘clawing’ of her hands, meaning that manipulating a mouse and selecting targets online can be incredibly difficult. She is heavily reliant on her smartphone, which she can use with a stylus, and which always hangs on a lanyard around her neck. “It’s my lifeline” she says.

Navigating the digital world

Sarah explains that she uses a ‘giant rollerball mouse with huge buttons’ to increase her chances of success when selecting items on screen. “Because my hands are so clawed, I tend to use the roller ball with my fist. When it comes to hitting the buttons I literally bash them with my fist because they’re nice and big. So that’s how I will get round a website or document.

When I’m working online or with documents, I like to use voice recognition. I can’t type because I’m so slow, so I will talk to MS Word etc. When it’s Google, I’ll always use the voice version. If I’m having to fill in free text forms on websites, I’ll either try to get the mobile site version up, or if I’m wanting to use desktop, I’ll tend to dictate what I want into my phone, then I will e-mail that to me, then I will cut and paste and then I will put the free text in the website. So, nothing is quick in terms of the way I can do things!”

Challenges with bad design

Her message to designers is clear: “Lack of precision is my greatest challenge…make the website links and targets easier to hit! Because of what I do, being involved in usability, rather than making me feel stupid, it just makes me feel irritated that they hadn’t thought about this.”

She discusses the many times that she has had to ‘abandon a shopping cart’ in the face of a badly designed site. “If they make it difficult for me, I will go elsewhere – it’s as simple as that”!

Sarah also discussed her real-world experiences with hospital carpark touch screen technology: “On steering myself up to the screen I found that it wanted me to input my car registration number, patient number, disabled badge user registration etc…With the clawing of my hands…Impossible”!

The impact of AI on accessibility

When asked for her thoughts on how AI might affect digital accessibility, Sarah said: “I don’t know exactly how, but I do feel that AI has got all sorts of potential. I’m just optimistic that it may be a technological advancement that actually would help make life easier for people with disabilities. The possibility of developing an AI neural link implant for humans. That would be amazing, wouldn’t it? To enable people to only have to think about a digital action and it would happen!”

Advice for organisations

“I think it’s time that designers and developers consider accessibility requirements ahead of their website builds, instead of retro fitting as an after-thought. To consider the circuitous journey that inaccessible website navigation takes screen-readers and voice-controlled software on, and to design accordingly. Most websites are only designed to be scrolled through with a mouse. If using a mouse isn’t an option for you and alternative navigation design hasn’t been considered, then using the tab key to tap through a site can result in you getting stuck in an annoying menu loop, with no way to progress!”

Conclusion

When speaking to Sarah about her day, it clear that technology enables her to complete tasks that might otherwise be impossible. However, a badly designed website can inadvertently lead to overwhelming challenges. Testing with people like Sarah who have lived experience of a disability will likely demonstrate a very different experience to yours. Taking some time to consider accessibility at the start will help remove barriers from the end experience, creating a better and more inclusive experience for everyone.

If you have enjoyed reading about Sarah’s experiences, you might also like to check out our other accessibility profiles

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