Stairs or ramps ?

(photo courtesy of wikipedia)


As software architects today we are faced with an increasing dilemma of do we design our application to have stairs or ramps.  In building terms, stairs can make a grand visual presence, but provide no access for those in wheel chairs.  Wheel chair access is often only tacked on as an after thought, and only as required by the relevant local legislation.  Consider the Lincoln Memorial, and it’s grand stairs. Where’s the ramps ?  It wasn’t designed with that in mind.

As we architect our software monuments, we have conflicting forces. Rich mouse interaction and animations, versus accessibility. Designing for both is hard, so it often gets put off to the “afterwards” pile, where accessibility might eventually be retro fitted.  That then becomes a cost in dollars and time, that tends to be cut.  The result is it becomes too expensive to provide accessibility features for the sake of employees.  So as we focus on the beauty of building our stairs and grand entrances, we effectively discriminate against large sections of the potential workforce. 

It’s ironic that computer software, probably the leading technology with the ability to provide access for many people who are otherwise disadvantaged in what work they can do, is tending to discriminate more as we “advance” the “user interface” . When M.L.K stood on those stairs and told of us of a dream for the future, he obviously had bigger issues on his mind than those stairs and the discrimination they caused, but part of that dream was that all people be treated equal.

It’s not easy. It’s a difficult task.  We may not achieve it overnight, but if we all try a little bit, we can get there.  Next time you start building stairs, please stop and consider the ramps.

2 Comments so far

  1.   Jeremy on July 22nd, 2008          

    Maybe it’s not a matter of one or the other, but building removable stairs over your ramps. In the real world it’s probably easier to put a piece of plywood over pre-existing stairs and call it a ramp, but in software you can do the opposite; build the bare minimum in terms of UI as the starting point, then add bells and whistles that can be toggled on or off to supplement the basic functionality. Think about Windows Vista: it works whether Aero is enabled or not, but Aero just makes it cooler.

  2.   bill on August 5th, 2008          

    Hi Jeremy,

    I think it is something we really need to consider at a lower level. Retro-fitting ramps over stairs isn’t always the right approach. If you consider composite controls, their visual aspects for example might be very different to the spoken story. And for navigation, the ability to use voice commands needs to be taken into account with the existing visual aspects. So we need to consider things such as how would a paraplegic access this, or how would a blind person get the information.

    So yes, perhaps we need to look lower, and have stairs as mere facades over the core functionality, facades which are interchangeable.