Accessibility LabThe world wasn’t built with disabled people in mind. Too many bumps and corners and narrow spaces. Too many objects just out of reach, too high or too low. Sights and sounds hard to see and hear. And that’s just the real world. The world of the Internet, initially, was a lot worse.

But not anymore.

Back in 1984, while I was at Apple, we discovered that the just-announced and beautifully designed Macintosh computer was, in some ways, terribly designed for much of the disabled population. One way we demonstrated this to our hardware and software engineers was to have them sit together, each in front of the Macintosh they’d been instrumental in designing, and do the following: “Put your hands in your pocket, put a pencil in your mouth, and type a 2-line memo.”

That simple simulation eventually led to the identification and fixing of more than 40 obstacles that were originally designed as conveniences for the average user. More than any lecture could have accomplished, the real-life simulation of disabled experiences led not only to the increased usability of the Macintosh, but also, in the words of one software engineer, to a new, more inclusive, way of seeing the world: “I’ll never view my work in the same way again.”

It’s useful to mention that the fixes—what we termed “electronic curb-cuts”—were, for the most part, quite simple to make. The much more difficult challenge was to recognize that the accessibility problems existed in the first place.

And so it is with websites. Even Yahoo!.

Which is why we’ve just opened the Yahoo! Accessibility Lab, a place where engineers, designers, and product managers can experience for themselves how disabled users navigate the web. And sometimes, how they can’t.

At this point, the Accessibility Lab is in its formative stage; we’re still learning how to make it as valuable a resource as possible. As a result, it is only available—for now—to Yahoo! employees. Here is part of what we’ve said to them in announcing this new on-campus location:

No matter what your position is at Yahoo!, we invite you to wander in, look around, play a little, watch a little, try a little, borrow a little... and then come back again. And again.

Come in and be blind for a while and learn how to buy a car at Yahoo! Autos. Or be paralyzed from the neck down and use Yahoo! Mail or play Yahoo! Games. Or be deaf, or learning disabled, or non-verbal. These are the kinds of experiences you can have in the Lab.

Our goal is to help you understand what it means to design products that are accessible to all of Yahoo!’s customers. Products that are usable. Enjoyable. Delightful. And inclusive.

In addition to simulating the disabled experience, the Accessibility Lab also provides a growing collection of books and videos that we hope will help visitors become more comfortable with the culture of disability. And help Yahoos keep disabled kids and adults clearly in mind as they design and code.

Alan Brightman
Senior Policy Director, Special Communities

Alan is the author of many books about the disabled experience, including his recent "DisabilityLand" (SelectBooks, 2008).