Liberté, Fraternité, Accessible!

Antti Raike

Antti Raike
Senior Advisor in accessibility
Aalto University

In this article I seek to clarify the concept of accessibility to media professionals. My aim is to make it useful in media productions covering film, television and games. In other words, the aim is to offer a working term for professional use in media.

Accessibility is making constantly new proponents. The utopian concepts like ‘accessible’ and ‘universal’ are vague but respectable enough to tell in a word how important democracy, diversity, equality, multiculturalism, and participation are for the proponent in question. Who might oppose these kind of worthy themes that make us happy and keep the customer satisfied although we are not quite sure what they actually mean? Any objections? Thus we can nail down our values, vision and mission (accessibility included) on a suitable location like office wall.

However, accessibility will not be so axiomatic if a casual media producer aims to mobilise it in practice. Then the tune typically changes, because accessibility tends to equal the increasing costs of conversions in production, and accessibility loses the all-embracing traits. Above the line or below the line, producers easily start the usual “someone should do something for free and quickly” and “who pays if it is done” haggle. This easily leads an experienced and streetwise producer to operate in such a situation as in changing a light bulb asking “actually, is it necessary to change it at all?” Perhaps the dualism of the concept is the reason why accessibility is preferred to stay as an abstract policy statement, instead of an essential component or a part in modern media production.

According to dictionary accessible could mean things like available, accessible, understandable, clear, friendly and easily approachable. Thus a lot of confusion has been caused by the word ‘accessible’ – surprisingly – pointing to access. How come friendliness or understanding has anything to do with access? So let’s make the first basic division for the practical implementation of accessibility. It can be distinguished as follows by two terms: accessibility and barrier-free. In addition, British tradition uses the term ‘inclusive design’, consistent with the terms of ‘barrier-free’ and ‘accessible’. Then the ‘barrier-free’ can be targeted to situations where the default is inaccessible. Built environment (such as a theatre, or Media Centre Lume in the School of Art and Design) is full of both foreseen and unseen barriers such as locked doors, thresholds, ramps, bumps, and stairs. Here I am referring to ‘affordances’ defined by Gibson; we are talking about things we do not exactly know how they will work, how users will use our designs, or how they access in different situations. Yet, we expect the existence of some of the premise and we aim to increase the number of guests, visitors, or audience. For example, a producer claims “adults are able to use this, but not children” or “this game is for teenagers”. In cases of this kind, “inaccessible” and “accessibility” suggest that the default is inability to act, because something will be needed to outstand these barriers what ever they are. In this sense, Finnish Association of People with Physical Disabilities uses the term ‘barrier-free’ (‘esteettömyys’ in Finnish) very logically: Removing the existing barriers is the core activity of the association. Their bread is to ensure that unnecessary steps or thresholds will not exist and, if they do, the barriers can be minimised by ramps that are marked clearly for users etc.

On the other hand accessibility can be seen more as proactive policy and an essential part of modern professional media production: Good accessibility tempts more audience. This is where we should learn something new to make accessibility a natural part of our operations.

Accessibility in media is a holistic default approach in situations where the “inaccessible” is not necessary or the actual starting point: Especially in digital media production there is no rational reason to do inaccessible products, because making everything accessible is just as easy. The production of ‘inaccessible’ solution is as easy or as difficult as ‘accessible’, modern digital service is just as easy to implement both ways, so why not take the accessible way for granted? Here it is necessary to reflect our ossified thinking models: A digital service or production is not a building, a service itself does not require ‘doors’, ‘stairs, ‘too small toilets’, ‘dim corridors’ or whatever we are familiar with built environment. This difference with digital and physical environments is at the core of W3C activities: Obstacles and barriers are always additions resulting from producers’ inability, laissez-faire mentality, lack of understanding, or even pure laziness (but hopefully never unprofessionalism). Where building developers and architects have to face the limitations of three-dimensional physical space and materials, producers have to address the constraints of imaginary and attitudes. Surely, user interfaces, these physical gadgets may be associated with different types of obstacles, but the keyboards, monitors and mice are not digital products: They belong to the physical world.

Previous could be summarized as follows: Any digital service or artefact is basically accessible as a concept before the production, but it could be made inaccessible during the production phases. The physical environment is always inaccessible to someone in one way or another, but it can be modified to be accessible. In both cases there is a unifying principle and best practice: Nothing beats good planning and careful pre-production. All in all, I encourage fellow producers to consider the concept of accessibility: It is a handy tool in modern media productions.

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