Agatha Christie to Aretha Franklin: From talking books to LPs and the benefits of accessible design for all

Last time out we looked at the concept of disability not being a medical term, but a social construct in the article Disabled in an Abled World. This time, I’d like to delve into this further, exploring what can be done to make a more accessible space for everyone and how the benefits of inclusive design can be felt far beyond the original target audience.

So many things that are now considered mainstays of modern society were originally borne out of the needs of the disabled community (read more in The Evolution of Assistive Technology by Nicolas Steenhout). Just look at Siri and Alexa, two of the most useful and, to some, essential household tools available. These always on devices are permanently ready to update the calendar with football practice, find a phone that’s fallen down the side of the sofa or add apples to the shopping list. But how many of you realise that something that is now taken for granted was originally developed to give disabled people access to technology?

Another great example of how accessible technology has become a staple of the mainstream is the audio book. The audio book was originally developed to provide a way to read for soldiers returning from World War I who had lost their sight during battle. In the UK, a team, led by former Captain Ian Fraser who himself lost his sight after being shot in the eye by a German sniper, worked in collaboration with the then National Institute for Blind People to develop a way to record an entire book onto gramophone disc (read the whole story at RNIB’s Celebrating the History of Talking Books). Not as easy as you may think when, in the early twentieth century a single 78rpm gramophone record could play no more than 5 minutes of audio per side (Yale University Library). So, Captain Fraser and his team set about developing a means to reduce the revolution speed to just 24rpm (How we Read – A Sensory History of Books for Blind People) meaning up to 30 minutes of audio could be recorded on each side. Meanwhile, in the USA, a similar project was underway by the American Federation for the Blind (AFB) where they developed a record that could play at the slightly faster, but more common 33 1/3rpm (AFB – The Making of a Talking Book).

This shows that, without the drive to empower disabled people to have access to the things many people take for granted, the music album or LP may never have come to pass meaning we could have missed out on classics such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Blur’s Parklife or Taylor Swift’s 1989 (still, you can’t get it right all the time!).

Anyway, back to the audio book and, scroll forward almost 90 years to 2019, 15% of Brits listened to an audiobook, generating approximately £69 million of revenue. Many people found that listening to a book allowed them to continue to enjoy literature when they would otherwise not have the time, making the audio book an essential tool in today’s world (

I remember as a child, before going on holiday my brother, sister and I would take a trip to the local library where we could choose some books on tape to listen to on the long drive down to the South of France (this was in the days before personal stereos, walkmans or iPods). There was one time in particular that we were all so enthralled by an especially tense part of the Secret Seven that we missed our turn, taking a long detour adding precious time to an already lengthy journey sat in a very warm Ford Cortina!

I digress, but the point is that some of the most useful items we now take for granted have their roots in providing accessible solutions for disabled people. What makes these solutions even better is when, like the audio book, they are built in collaboration with the intended users. It is so important to remember that, when making anything more accessible, we don’t simply try to mimic “normal operation” but instead consider the desired outcome and determine what is the most accessible way to achieve it. To explain, consider the first time you visit a new website, when entering the site, the first thing you may do is scan through the navigation bar for a clue of where to go next. For example, if you’re on a sports website looking for a new pair of running shoes, then you would first find the correct sport and then continue to drill down until you have a selection of trainers all the correct size that would meet your needs.

For me, the principle is the same but instead of scanning the navigation bar, I’d bring up a list of links or headings and search through in much the same way. This is where accessible design comes in,  making sure a site has the correct building blocks so it is compatible with being navigated in these different ways depending on need. To find out more on what this means, take a look at my earlier article “The Cookies Banner and the Screen Reader”. What is important with any accessible design is engaging with the target audience to understand their specific requirements thereby ensuring they are met rather than assuming and potentially missing something that is the difference between accessibility and denial of access.

Recently I took on a new role as a Product Owner which is essentially the central point of contact between business users and IT developers. The exciting thing about this role is that I have the opportunity to help shape the future development strategies and, hopefully, quash the notion that accessible design is a costly burden that only benefits the few. Instead, it forms the fundamental basis of an all-inclusive solution and has far-reaching advantages way beyond the user-base who rely on it. A ramp doesn’t just make a venue available for wheelchair users but it helps parents with pushchairs, delivery drivers with trolleys of stock and elderly people with walkers. The same is true for accessible technology. Designing a Customer Relationship Management application to work with a screen reader by providing shortcuts, tab ordering and metadata doesn’t just help someone with a visual impairment like me. It helps the front-line agent on the phone to the customer to save time by bringing up the necessary screen with the press of a single button instead of multiple mouse clicks.  It supports better system indexing and search thanks to improved metadata or more task automation thanks to in-built anchors and headings.

In short, much like Siri, Alexa and that old dusty LP, truly accessible design isn’t just for those who need it, it’s for everyone. Not to say that these staples of everyday life would never have come about without disabled people, but it just may have taken a little while longer. So, next time these accessible needs are deemed too expensive or time consuming to cater for, just think what next great thing we may be missing out on.

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