Design technology for everyone – not just the able-bodied

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Peter Griffin

The pandemic made us more reliant on technology to get by, so spare a thought for the tens of thousands of Kiwis with disabilities who have had to struggle with inaccessible tech.

For 38-year-old Wellington video blogger and accessibility advocate Humphrey Hanley aka NoHandsNZ, the internet has for much of his life been a tool to help him transcend his disability.

“My love of the internet started because it gave me a way to escape from my life of being disabled, and to be free of those judgments,” Hanley told this week’s NetHui conference, which was held virtually for the first time due to lingering uncertainty over Covid-19 restrictions.

Hanley has a rare genetic, blistering-skin condition called epidermolysis​ bullosa​ (EB). It is incredibly rare affecting only 150 or so Kiwis.

“If your skin is nailed down, mine is sitting there attached by a buttery paste. It literally lifts off at any sort of friction,” was how Hanley described his condition to a Stuff reporter in 2017.

Hanley’s hands are also fused together. He refers to himself in typically self-deprecating style as “the handless Gaming hero that the world neither asked for nor really needs”.

Humphrey Hanley used technology to overcome his disability.

Removing the barriers

Hanley hasn’t let EB rob him of a fulfilling, active life. He is married and leads an active life. A video following him assembling a gaming PC despite his lack of hands has racked up tens of thousands of views on Youtube.

He’s an unashamed gaming geek and tech-head, but Hanley is also painfully conscious of the fact that many people with disabilities continue to be poorly served by tech designed for barely a thought for their needs.

“If we don’t deliberately set out to remove barriers in our work and our worlds, we almost always include them by default,” Hanley says. 

“I frequently find myself struggling to use apps or touchscreen programs that require multi-touch gestures to control them. It’s just another one of those things that not everyone designing technology understands, when they have the amazing idea that pinch zooming is the ideal way forward for the future.”

Humphrey Hanley speaking at NetHui 2020

Accessibility has become more of a focus for the major tech companies in recent years. Apple, in particular, has a host of accessibility features available across its devices such as the iPhone, iPad and its OSX operating system.

Microsoft has prioritised accessibility in its Windows operating system and earlier this year open-sourced via Github information from its Accessibility Insights programme, to encourage software developers to design with accessibility in mind.

Elsewhere, accessibility and technology have an uneasy relationship. An increasing amount of TV content is subtitled and streaming platforms like Netflix do well. But many hours of programming are still inaccessible to the deaf as subtitling and audio descriptions not for profit Able tries to keep up with ever-expanding content platforms.

Covid’s tech gap

The pandemic had made some accessibility issues more acute, says Hanley.

Wherever you are in the world, what would you have done during lockdown if you couldn’t use Zoom to communicate with friends and family, if you couldn’t scroll your social media feed to keep up with the latest info?” He asked NetHui attendees.

“What if your Netflix show came without picture or sound coming through.”

They are all things the able-bodied take for granted that were thrown into even sharper relief for disabled people who were trying to deal with the health system during the Covid lockdown.

“Imagine you need to be able to use the internet because during COVID-19 level four lockdown here in New Zealand, the only way to get to see many rural healthcare professionals was via an online portal,” he explains. 

“You need to be able to get your prescriptions, but there’s no way to type that into your GPS Health app of choice.”

“Sorry to be dramatic,” says Hanley. These are hypothetical, but potentially very, very serious scenarios for some of the one and four Kiwis that have a disability that may limit their ability to interact with technology.”

His plea to the tech community is to design with accessibility built-in.

Apple is an accessible tech leader with features like its screen magnifier.

“How can your work, your digital content, your company, or your upcoming events be more accessible to other disabled people out there?

“We need to make sure that as leaders in the online world and digital spaces we create that we make sure these are accessible and open to all.”

We can all play a small part in improving accessibility too. For instance, if you have friends or family that are visually impaired, you can use alt text tags to help screen readers describe images. 

For instance, its fairly easy to embed image descriptions in Twitter posts, though few know the function even exists.

“I know it’s not because of ill intent that your tweet excluded those people from knowing more about that moment,” says Hanley. 

“But if we don’t deliberately set out to remove barriers in our work and our worlds, we almost always include them by default.

You can watch Humphrey Hanley’s Nethui talk in full here.

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Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin has been a journalist for over 20 years, covering the latest trends in technology and science for leading NZ media. He has also founded Science Media Centre and established Australasia's largest science blogging platform,

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