Transcript of PEAT Talks: Accessibility and the Seven Principles of Universal Design webinar with Sina Bahram held on January 21, 2016.


Hello, and welcome to PEAT Talks, the virtual speaker series from the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology. On every third Thursday of the month, PEAT Talks showcases various organizations and individuals whose work and innovations are advancing accessible technology in the workplace. My name is Christa Beal. I’m a member of the PEAT team and I’ll be hosting this today’s talk.

Before we get started, I’m going to quickly review a few logistics. We will have time for Q&A, so please enter your questions in the Chat window or by emailing You can also email if you are having any technical difficulties. You can download the presentation on, and an archived recording will be posted online following today’s event.

We will be live Tweeting today’s event from @PEATWorks, so please feel free to join us using the #PEATTalks and including @SinaBahram.

Today PEAT is honored to welcome Sina Bahram. Sina is an accessibility consultant, researcher, and entrepreneur. He is the founder of Prime Access Consulting (PAC), and a doctoral candidate in computer science at North Carolina State University. As a recognized expert in accessibility, Sina enjoys collaborating with both colleagues in the field and individuals of diverse professions to devise innovative and user-centered solutions to difficult real-world problems. Sina was recognized in 2012 as a White House Champion of Change by President Barack Obama and in 2015 as an Emerging Leader in Digital Accessibility at the annual Knowbility Community Heroes of Accessibility Awards.

Today, we will be talking about how the seven principles of universal design can be applied to help advance digital accessibility and develop content and experiences that are inclusive of the widest possible audience. PEAT is excited to showcase this topic, since inclusive design of workplace solutions has a direct impact on creating an accessible work environment.

Now, without further delay, I’ll turn things over to Sina.


Thank you so much for having me and thanks, everybody, for attending today's talk. I will be talking about universal design and I first wanted to start off by perhaps defining the working definition that we can use for that topic, and so one such definition is the ability of all people to use a technology or a building or a service, regardless of functional ability. One common example of this, for example, are curb cuts and ramps on sidewalks, that someone who is a wheelchair user uses to cross the street without having to hop the curb. And one advantage or unknown fact about those things is that the majority of people who use curb cuts are not people with mobility impairments. They are folks with luggage at the airport or with grocery carts at a supermarket or parents with a stroller, and so this is a working example of universal design in which it is useful or perhaps even a critical path for one set of users or people, but it is beneficial for all people, and sometimes we don't always get it right. For example, when we first made curb cuts we made them small, and that presented problems for blind travelers were using canes and might not have been able to detect a difference between the sidewalk elevation and the road, and so the solution here is not to give up on that idea and take them away, but to iterate and fail forward, and so what we did as a society was put those bumps on them, known as foot braille, so that it’s not only useful for somebody using a wheelchair or a grocery cart or a stroller as before, but someone who is blind can feel those bumps with a cane or with their feet and be able to use them as well.

Often times when we talk about universal design, we also discuss accessibility and usability, and the difference I would like to point out here is that accessibility is those technical or design features that we put into products and services aimed mostly at persons with disabilities. For example, having an ATM talk or having braille on beside the keys, and usability often refers to the property of services and technology that when we say something is usable, it is easy to learn, and when users want to come back and use it again, it does not take as much time to retrain. They find it intuitive. To me, universal design lives in this overlap area between accessibility and usability, and will we will see some of that as we go through the seven principles.

Let's begin with the seven principles that are universal design.

The first principle is equitable use. Can users with different functional ability get a similar or equitable expense, and as far as equitable is really important because it is not the exact same experience. Sometimes I think we get hung up on this idea that someone can see, there is no way there is going to be able to appreciate a graph or someone cannot hear so how are we going to participate on a phone call from for those of us in the accessibility or universal design space, we know those two things are more than possible. Graphs can be described or captioned, data can be explored through assistive technology like a screenreader, and someone who is deaf or hard of hearing has a variety of tools, such as TTY and transcription, sign language or text chat. Thinking about this in terms of the design of products and services that are offering an equitable experience, as opposed to the exact same experience is really a key first step.

Going back to the graphic example, one way to facilitate an equitable experience would be to also offer the underlying Excel spreadsheet that generates a graph, or on a conference call, making sure there is a TTY bridge or on a webinar or seminar that is being broadcast across the corporation to make sure that those talks are captioned.

The second principle of Universal design is flexibility and use. This refers to this idea that you just may be able to interact with information in a variety of different ways. For example, the graph example from before, by offering a spreadsheet that was used with the data that was used to generate such a graph, it is useful for somebody who can’t see because of the use of a screen reader to be able to interact with the data, to be able to form analysis on that data, to output it to other modalities, for example, speech and braille, but also because emergent effects that you may not think about ahead of time.

For example, by not having a data only be any graph, by having it be available as well, you can automate scripts to do that analysis for you or you could perhaps transfer it to another system that is able to present that data in a different way or to use that data to generate an email report. These accessibility benefits that we first perceived from the elements of universal design, they really do have other benefits, as well, for all users.

The third principle of universal design is simple and intuitive use. This idea, we have entered around this expression a lot, we say something is intuitive or easy to use, but it is really referring to users being able to interact with technology both at the workplace and across a variety of different places and devices, regardless of their background knowledge or experience that they bring to it.

I think we've all had an experience where we might interact with the system and it asks as a particular question and we have no idea what the definition of the question is, so we don't know how to answer that question, so having a help button or explaining the term in a form or in a workflow is incredibly important.

This has other advantages as well, for example for someone with a cognitive impairment. Using an interface for the first time. Having the explanation is incredibly critical for them to be able to understand what the computer is asking for, what the particular form or workflow is wanting them to do. It also has simple, profitable motives. If you think about a corporation, and how much time one might spend retraining users or employees or training new employees. It is important to realize that by having less complicated systems and having systems that are intuitive and easy to use, this amount of time for training goes down. It also allows somebody else to be able to use a similar system or perform a critical task indicating that somebody might be out sick or there is turnover.

There is emergent benefits that we are going to see again and again with respect to universal design, but also having accessibility advantages.

The fourth principle universal design is perceptible information. It is concerned with the perceptibility of information. So, computers interact with information, regardless of a sensory disability, for example disturbances in the sensory environment. For here a lot of times when this comes up in the accessibility space. For example, imagine a volume control on a phone handset and being able to turn up that volume so that someone who is deaf or hard of hearing is able to participate on a conference call or simply communicate with colleagues and friends, but there's also times where there might simply be a lot of noise, there is a disturbance in the sensory environment and having that volume control, regardless of whether one has a hearing impairment or not has a great deal of impact.

The other aspect to consider here is that sometimes devices that offer such behaviors are important because one modality is not as accessible to a set of users as others. Think of, going back to a phone example, that only has a touchscreen, and let's say for the sake of argument that this particular touchscreen is not like an apple iOS product. It does not have a lot of accessibility built in, and so having a keypad there in addition to offer users the ability to dial out offers this tactile modality.

The fifth principle of universal design involves tolerance for eror. Can users always return to a consistent known starting point, so that they don't cause systems to crash or behave unexpectedly.

I think we've all had the experience when using anything from a mobile device to a computer system or kiosk where the system is behaving in a way we don't understand and it would be great to have a reset or back button, ability to go back to somewhere where we know where we started from and to try to do the task again.

Often times today we have the assumption that a user will come up to this device, a copy machine, they will always have to open the lid first and then put in the document, and then places and then select the choice as opposed to maybe they wanted to select their choices first, and it seems like a silly example, except those type of hardships that colleagues of mine have experienced, and when you combine that inflexibility with a sensory disability, say someone who is blind or someone will not be able to see an error message on his screen, this becomes doubly more important.

The sixth principal of universal design has to do with low physical effort. The idea here is that users need to be able to appreciate the service and information being presented without needing much physical effort or dexterity. Again, the immediate example here might be something like a set of double doors, with a mobility impairment where someone in a wheelchair or some using crutches. This comes up again and again with respect to people having their hands full. You are carrying some items throughout the office and you want to make sure to be able to get through the doorway, but you don't have a hand free for the doorknob.

This also has implications with respect to the digital landscape. If we think of a menu system or if we think of other environments that we use that are electronic in nature, they often require us to perform certain tasks, and this idea of low physical effort can be extended there with respect to it should not take that many keystrokes or that many actions to perform a particular task.

Thinking about things like in this matter and coming up with solutions, remembering what the user did last time and presenting that as a choice to them has a lot of implications for things like efficiency or maybe one is simply tired and having the choices in front of you instead of having to key in a menu option is an incredible benefit.

The seventh principle of universal design has to do with size and approach for use. The idea here is that users get a close enough to trigger device or interactive, a particular machine that they need to use for getting a task done regardless of whether they happen to be in a wheelchair, using crutches, have a service animal with them, such as a seeing eye dog, and again the benefits that's what this has benefits for users without functional limitation or disabilities, for example someone who has a lot of bags with them at the airport and still needs to be able to get in to assess the kiosk.

Is also can really be thought of in the digital landscape, as well because we have a lot of instances in which, let's say there's a crowded interface. There's a lot of buttons on the screen. Having them be very tiny is not only harmful to users and very frustrating for users who cannot see to touch a smaller button, but simply increases the error rate for all of us because it is harder for us to select the right choice because our finger might have slipped a little bit or as you start moving your finger, you notice that you are going to be excluding it from your vision, you can’t see it as you depress it. So making sure things are able to be resized and able to be resized is incredibly important.  Another example that would be something along the terms of a browser that can resize the text. It is not only helpful if you happen to have a vision impairment and you need the text to be a little larger, but is incredibly helpful if you don't have your glasses on that day or simply need to read something and are a little far away from the system.

The major takeaway when I think about universal design, and I have been referring to it as inclusive design as well because universal design even though it is the formal name sometimes give the impression that it is a one-time thing, that you have to get all right at once, and I feel like it is an iterative process and universal design requires us to take a look at what we are trying to achieve, try to maximize the net that we are trying to throw around all possible users and then iterate on it, to fail forward, and one takeaway from me because of that is that this is really a process that can be incorporated into all aspects of the professional and personal development when we think about designing products.
For example, it is not just in the QA phase. It is not just in the programming and developmental or code writing it needs to be thought of at all aspects of the lifecycle of procuring products, of making products, of hiring employees so that we are actually including and sustaining this process throughout the lifetime of the organization.

In closing I would first like to thank you for being interested in this topic and thinking about universal design. It is one of things that will come up in the everyday course of things, but then when it does, you say oh I never thought about that.

An example of that would be that there is a little dot on the number 5 on the calculator and phone. You might not have noticed that before, but if you look, there is little tactile marker to let you know where the number 5 key is or if you're watching this webinar on a computer, your computer in front of you might have little bumps on the F and J keys so that you can rest your fingers without having to look down.

When we start thinking about universal design and inclusive design and researching it we start seeing it everywhere and it becomes one of the things that you notice is absent and you really appreciate it’s presence, and that is the way that I would like to think about it and encourage others to think about it so that we are incorporating it into our everyday process as opposed to having to consider it as a checkbox or something we should be thinking about separately.  

With that, thank you so much for having me and I look forward to the questions and if I can be of any service in the future, I am happy to talk about the topic.  I'm pretty active in social media and I look forward to continuing the conversation with you there.

All right. Thank you, Sina.  That was a great talk. I love your examples. I'm going to start in on a couple questions, everybody on the phone, please feel free to type in your question in the chat window, and we will get to them in order we receive them.

I am going to start with one of my own questions, which is how can employers support a universal design mindset throughout the development of a product?

I think that is a multistep answer. The first aspect of it is to make sure we are not only thinking of universal design in terms of accessibility. It is beneficial for all users so it really falls under usability and UX and that is why we need to start at the beginning. The common example that is used here, if we think about universal design or accessibility, towards the middle or the end of the project, it is far more extensive. And in architecture, for example, if you want to add a room onto a house, if you do it at the beginning of the blueprint stage, it is very easy and a very low note task to do, to work with the architect and you can get that done. If you are trying to add a room onto the house after a family is living there and there's electronics and plumbing and everything that has been done, then it is far more extensive endeavor.

The first aspect of it is to start early and incorporate it at the beginning of the design process. The second is to make sure that it is not a one-time thing. It needs to be sustainable. We need to think about it in design, think about it in terms of implementation, so using best practices to universal design when it comes to coding and when it comes to documentation, and also considering it at the QA, the quality assurance and quality control in terms of testing. Making sure that if we do something correctly and we do follow the principles of universal design and we make an interface accessible, we then continue to do that on future iterations, and if a regression comes in, let's say some change on down the road, it happens to all of us on every single project were somebody needs, and maybe the champion voice for universal design isn’t around anymore, at least those test cases still exist, that the documentation still exists, that process is still in place to ensure universal design is there being considered along any other goal, for example, security or maintainability.

All right. I have a question from Roger Little, and the question is do you think Google maps are desperate for any my based app embodies universal design? Why or why not?

Thank you for the question. Do I think that Google maps embodies universal design? I think that there is, I will step back for second and instead of talking about Google maps specifically, maybe talk about how maps conveys spatially geographic relationships between two objects, and they offer a lot of advantage of being visually able to skip from location to location and understand relationships between location.  

I happen to actually have a lot of maybe perhaps bias or personal feelings in the space because I happen to be blind, and one of the projects that I have worked on and are actually part of my dissertation work, is a system for making maps accessible, and one of the ways in which I did that is by taking a touch screen and using Google maps at the back end of the data source and allowing users to drop their finger and know what is underneath it. In other words, they see the underneath their finger the state of North Carolina or Virginia and being able to trace it around the screen.

And so I think those kind of functionalities might be missing traditionally from some Google maps and applications, along with some screen reader lack of compatibility. There's a lot of good research in the space but when it comes to the practical use of it, I find that mapping systems are not the most successful.

Apple maps definitely in my humble opinion is a little bit further along in the space simply because of the voice over support their built into iOS where a blind user can drop their pin on the map and be able to navigate around and swiped through points of interest and things like that, but I feel like as an industry digital maps still have a long way to go. We talked about blind users, but we have not even gone to, for example, colorblindness and use of color to convey information on that, so making sure the texture and shape of icons is incredibly as important as the color being used, as well as other things, for example, folks with cognitive impairments that would appreciate a far less cluttered map, and so the density of the map really matters. It needs a longer answer I suppose, but I feel like we are heading in the right direction, but there is a lot of work to still be done.

I have another question. From Rachel Florez, this is a great one because I think a lot of us are using infographics pics, she said: infographics are becoming an incredibly popular way to communicate visual information for the sighted reader. How do you factor in universal design?

I think that this idea that an image is worth 1000 words is sometimes quite apt, but it does not take 1000 often times to convey the meaning of some graphics, and sometimes it does, but we have other advantages, like having the underlying data set. I talked about a graph when discussing the equitable use of an example in universal design and providing the data set, and I think what we need to be more comfortable when we share infographics to also share the backend data.

From a scientific point of view I feel this is incredibly important because it adds validity to whatever graphic is being shown that there is that authenticity of having the data be available, and then there is the accessibility improvement and the benefits of having somebody for example with a screenreader being able to review that data.

Infographics also convey information in ways that make it a lot easier to understand if one does not care to or have the ability to understand the data. I do think that those written and verbal descriptions are fantastic with respect to infographics and then making sure that when we disseminate and use infographics, wherever we do, that these descriptions are not lost.

Sometimes one might come up with an infographics and describe it to see if there alt text with it or longer form description that is successfully describing it and then his infographics is shared on social media and that description does not go with it.

And so that is almost more frustrating for me because it is a lost opportunity where it was once successful in one form, but because of the way it was shared, it then loses accessibility ability in the form of transit.

Great. I think that is really important as making sure that when you are translating something from its original location to another, you have got to make sure all the accessibility features stay intact.

We have time for a couple more questions, so I will move right along.

What resources would you recommend to any newcomer to universal design, particularly with regard to software development?

A couple of things immediately come to mind. There are some great aspects of universal design that address this, the web accessibility guidelines. This is WCAG, and that is put out by the W3C, so if you go to or simply Google WCAG 2.0. It will come right up as the first link.

These define a set of standards organized around on four principles that very much mirror universal design, but some feel that they might not go all the way, but they are definitely a good start. That is in the web domain.

I also feel that WCAG’s principles can be used in the software domain, as well, so not necessarily the web, but I think application development on mobile as well as desktop. For those kind of things, you might want to consult the usability or accessibility standards, for example, Apple has some great ones for app developers for making the app successful and it does not just concentrate on blind users. It covers a whole host of accessibility features. Again taking that universal design approach to it, as well as, and it has some similar resources. Google has them for that and Microsoft does for app development.

Wherever you happen to be doing your development, I think that there are some usability best practices that one can point to. The other aspect of it is to try doing it yourself and, what I mean by that is one easy suggestion, for many of us though not screenreader users, is simply unplug your mouse. That is something that screen reader users have to do by necessity, but you can do so by choice assuming that you are sighted user. Simply disable the trackpad or unplug the mouse from your desktop and see how long you can go by doing so. Check for emails, maybe look at the news headline, try to perform a work task and see how far that gets you because this level of awareness of just simply keeping access to something or not relying on one way to doing things, that method of thinking about interfaces can then start impacting the way that you code those interfaces, the way you start in developing those images and then when you want to design something the next time, it will be a lot more of an innate experience for you as opposed just looking at a standard set of guidelines.

Great. We are going to have time for one final question, and this is a good one because it leads into our February topic, but what return on investment does universal design have for cash-strapped organizations that are historically slow to innovate like nonprofits?

I am not sure I can concede all of the points in that question, as I have some wonderful experiences with some of my clients that happened to be nonprofits and they are innovative because their cash-strapped and they don't have that wealth of funds available to them, the innovation factor needs to be rather high in order to achieve their goals. But I think the heart of the question is conceding universal design as a cost center rather than an ROI, as opposed to return on investment and we have talked about some of that in the past half-hour with respect to the benefit that you get with respect to all employees, not just ones with disabilities.

There is the standard response that avoiding exposure on the legal side because this is part of the law in the United States, and there are regulations such as Sections 508 and 504 and ADA that we need to be aware of, but there's also this idea that more and more businesses are realizing, that when you incorporate universal design and accessibility awareness and these principles into your products, regardless of the amount that you are able to do that, there are emergent benefits that occur, and so I think that sometimes this is presented as an all or nothing proposition, and so from a cash strapped nonprofit point of view they look at them and say there's no way we can afford to do that, and that nothing is done, and perhaps look forward and say that, at least something I found successful working with different organizations, quite different sizes, is to do a little bit at the beginning and to start getting into it and start thinking about it. There are a lot of things that you can do that actually cost zero dollars, and those would be the steps that I would start with respect to universal design and about processes that you can put in place and things you can do slightly differently, and then explore how you can turn those into perhaps features that are actually, for example, in a commercial product, able to be sold but usable by everyone and in the case of a nonprofit, the things that benefit the cause that nonprofit is trying to promote, not just accessibility aspect of it or a disability-focused aspect.


Well, that’s all we have for today. Don’t forget to join us for next month’s PEAT Talk on Thursday, February 18 at 2pm ET. We will be welcoming Dan Sullivan, Vice President at Audio Eye who will be talking about the return-on-investment for employers who embrace accessible technology. You can find the registration link on, or look for an email from PEAT with more information.

I’d like to give a special thanks to Sina for speaking with us today, and for all of you who took the time to join us. Enjoy the rest of your afternoon!

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