Activist and political theorist Dr. Angela Y. Davis once stated that the most ethical way to assess the health of a society or institution is in terms of how it treats those who have been marginalized. Put another way, Dr. Davis is arguing that outliers are the true measure of a system’s values, not those who are assumed to be “typical,” “average,” “healthy,” or “normal.” More often than not, such adjectives describe the degree to which a person conforms to a system’s requirements, not a system’s ability to accommodate the diversity of their needs. In line with its democratic mission to make all of the world’s information available for free, across differences in culture, tradition, and language, the Wikimedia Foundation believes that everyone should have access to computing’s ever-increasing powers of content creation, distribution, and consumption. This ethic and its problem-solving strategies are part of inclusive design.
If you have ever removed or put on your glasses, or held your device at arm’s length to better perceive a screen, then you have encountered issues that inclusive design tackles. The same can be said if you have done a text search on a video stream’s closed-captions, prefer your applications in “dark mode,” or struggled with a screen in bright sunlight. If you are a person using a screen reader or your operating system’s text-to-speech functions to access these words, or if you’ve ever dug deep into your system settings to adjust contrast and the scale of interface elements like pointers or text then you are also already literate in and benefitting from some aspects of inclusive design.
Wikimedian Volker Eckl is leading the team of Foundation designers that are pursuing the Foundation’s mission by implementing inclusive design at the level of the user-interface: that’s the geeky system of buttons, checkboxes, form patterns, typeface decisions, and careful considerations of spacing, color, and visual and behavioral consistency. We tend to notice a user-interface when it’s confusing or stops working, not when it is making content easier to read, recognize, and navigate. Projects that follow the Wikimedia Design Style Guide implement the best practices in modern web design, leading to clean and reliable content experiences that are effective on your mobile device, laptop monitor, or gigantic flatscreen. These best practices also address web-specific accessibility issues, thereby making sure that the widest possible range of people can enjoy and participate in the creation of free knowledge content in the Wikimedia movement.
Optimism, it turns out, is highly technical work. Creating the Design Style Guide was one thing, but providing a world of volunteer producers, organizers, and users with the technology to implement it was another. To do so Volker and company pursue a couple of broad strategies: 1) making the work freely available, and open to modification by the global community the Foundation serves; and 2) doing a considerable amount of non-trivial, and largely invisible, work “under the hood” that makes the first strategy possible. These two pursuits involve managing a daunting array of technical, cultural, and aesthetic variables that include the character set for your language’s alphabet and the direction it reads, supporting text alternatives for multimedia content, balancing color contrast ratios to ensure readability, and ensuring content presentation in assistive technologies such as screen readers, speech-to-text systems, and braille translators. After several years of hard work, Volker and his peers have created clear aesthetic and technical guidelines for implementing design principles and fundamentals, provided tools to assist in producing accessible content, created a modern user interface library that anyone can integrate into their web-based projects, and built Wikimedia projects that meet these standards.
Everything we do is both for and with our bodies, though the convenience of technology can sometimes make us pretend like we don’t have them. “As our bodies change, we encounter more mismatched designs,” writes Kat Holmes in Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, “simply because the designs that once worked well for us don’t change with us” (29). Access to some things we interact with are already segregated by factors such as age, so we don’t necessarily complain when we become physically incapable of doing something like skateboarding. Driving a vehicle has fuzzier edges, as anyone who has negotiated with a senior friend or relative well knows. Holmes also tells us that losing one’s privileges hurts, and it causes “anxiety, insecurity, anger, hostility, feelings of inadequacy, [and] a sense of being out of control” (33). The promise of inclusive design, for all of its challenges and complexities, is that it can contribute to someone experiencing the polar opposite of each one of these feelings. Volker and his peers aren’t just concerned with people who can’t or can no longer interact with certain aspects of the web. They are also addressing the mistaken thinking that people in that position are the only ones who benefit from rich and robust accessible design strategies.
The Wikimedia Foundation leaders like Volker and his design team, and the community that make its projects viable and possible understand that notions of “ability/disability” and “capability/impairment” are flexible. They aren’t bound to fixed identities or politicized categories, and they aren’t imaginary or abstract either. Pursuing inclusive and accessible web design and development practices can establish infrastructure that is taken for granted in the future, like today’s searchable transcripts, automatic doors, and ramped curbs. Similarly, alternate descriptions and metadata that is goes unnoticed by most web users could be interpreted and translated into a language “spoken” through the vibrations of your phone, or used to create smart summaries of large data sets. Imagine getting a sense of an incoming message’s content without taking out your device, or being alerted to cool images in your social media feed without having to scroll through all of them.
The Wikimedia Foundation aims to support a diverse audience, and it is committed to not raising barriers for one group of people as it seeks to improve the experience another has with its products and projects. Because Wikimedia projects are, at the level of their foundations, open and collaborative, a commitment to inclusive design that addresses more than the formal category of “disability” or “handicap” is a natural fit. Making all of the world’s knowledge freely available is a monumental task that some consider to be impossible. It is undoubtedly a slow process that cannot be managed from the top down in a fundamentally volunteer-driven movement, but it is absolutely worth it, because with the philosophical, ethical, and technical basis that Volker and his peers have provided, we are one step closer.