• 06.18.14

Why Hackers Should Care About Accessibility

Building technology that’s useful for everyone is trickier than it seems.

Why Hackers Should Care About Accessibility
[Image: Flickr user Marshall Astor]

Most people think of “accessibility” as those little-used options on their computer for disabled users. But not only does accessible design make a piece of technology useful to all, but it also increases the product’s user base and also makes it easier to use for people across age brackets and cultural boundaries.


“This is something that’s very relevant, and it’s not a luxury anymore,” explained Faith Haeussler, county coordinator of Philadelphia Link, a collaborative that helps the disability community become more independent. “There’s a shortage of caregivers, I think technology has to come in and take over some of the responsibility. I really believe that technology is going to help keep people with disabilities in their homes.”

Instead of the traditional model of telling people with disabilities what they need, individuals with disabilities were seen as knowledge experts, sitting side-by-side with hackers and developing design decisions at the conception of each project. “As a quadriplegic, I know that I could not do the work that I do without technology,” said German Parodi, a grassroots disability activist and student. “Collaborating from the bottom up, we’re respecting each other and trying to build a future collectively.”

“You always want to have disability at the table.” said Peter Trojić, a wheelchair user who participated at the event. Many people with disabilities also learned about accessibility issues from their peers. “There will be things that I don’t understand about certain disabilities, so I need input from them and they need input from me,” Trojić explained.

Hack4Access, a hackathon focusing on accessibility, was held in Philadelphia, over the weekend of May 31th to June 1st. It was hosted by Technically Philly, a tech news site, Philadelphia Link, and GenPhilly, a network geared toward developing an age-friendly city.

One of the main projects worked on at the hackathon was Unlock Philly, a data site centered around accessibility mapping. It has a variety of tools for people with disabilities to smartly commute around the city, including maps of accessible train stations in Philadelphia, an accessible trip planner, data visualizations of the broken accessibility elevators in stations, and videos to help people with anxiety navigate each station remotely.

Fall Fighter, another project, is a wearable sensor that tells you when you’re about to fall. Made out of an arduino and an accelerometer, the device analyzes your body positions and alerts you as you start to get off balance. The team built the hardware over the weekend and is currently working on developing the algorithms.


Even mistakes in hacking accessibility can also be reappropriated for other needs. For example, hackers working on the facial recognition tagging app for individuals with Alzheimer’s did not consult any potential end users for input and failed to understand how they interact with mobile technology. Yet, the audience at this demo was quick to realize its potential for another disabled population, the visually impaired. Susanne Erb, a blind woman in the audience, explained that it could tag and announce who was in a given room when she walked in.

Besides input, another issue that participants faced was the accessibility of the technology that developers built upon. One of the projects created an accessible touch screen, using a Leap Motion device and microcontroller. The device tracks hand movements and converts them into computer interactions, for individuals who have limited motion and paralysis. However, the device didn’t work on all disabled hands equally. When the developer tested the setup on two disabled individual whose hands were closed in a fist, it worked well. Yet when he tested it on someone whose hand was stuck in a bent-wrist position, the device couldn’t recognize it.

Here, it was not the developer’s fault. The Leap Motion data is proprietary and not available for developer use. “The way [Leap’s] product is designed right now assumes that you have a five-fingered fully functional hand. That’s an assumption built into their models,” said Youngmoo Kim, the director of Drexel University’s Excite center and one of the judges at the event. At this point, Leap has declined to provide data that would help developers find an accessible solution to this problem.