05 April 2014

Limitations, empathy and accessibility

Yesterday I found myself curled in a ball on the floor of the gym surrounded by a pool of my own partially digested lunch. It wasn’t pretty, and was the result of trying to perform like a teenager whilst drastically under the weather. Through pushing myself, I’d found my limit, and upon making that discovery I didn’t want to do anything other than adopt the foetal position.

Why is a discussion of physical limitations important to technical communicators? Well, it comes down to how we prioritise and incorporate accessibility into documentation and therefore the products they support. By losing my lunch during physical training, I have some empathy for the individual whose mobility, stamina and coordination are at levels that mean they have to live in a bungalow, and find walking to the shops a herculean task… sure it’s a different thing they’re doing, but the end result of exhaustion, dizziness and curling into a ball on the floor are about the same. I’d suggest that a professional athlete is more likely to empathise with someone with a physical disability than a normal, unchallenged member of the public would.

We’re the pro-athletes of the communications world. We can produce copy, content and a whole gamut of useful and info-blurb on a variety of subjects. Worse, we often have these jobs because we have acquired various qualifications… proof that we’re super-sponges and masters at absorbing information. So how can we relate to the reader or end user who may be having to sound out each word, whilst repeatedly flicking between ‘the thing’ and the documentation about ‘the thing’ like a lost tourist? The answer is, most of us can’t innately empathise that way… we see the man in the mirror as ‘average’. We can’t ‘read till we’re sick’ to build the empathy, but there are things that we can do that may help:

Study something new
If you’re feeling smug and secure in your Engineering degree, go and learn poetry, or French, or even French poetry… if you’re more of a linguist, then why not try a course in mathematics or the physical sciences. The struggle you’ll have reprogramming your brain to ‘the new’ is what clients feel when the safety blanket of their old ways is yanked from them and that starting next week they’ll be using your firm’s solution.
Spend time in noisy places
I used to think I was good with noise… then we had a child, and I find that I now go to an artillery range to catch up on sleep. Turn the TV and radio on, grab yourself a copy of War and Peace and ask your partner to talk to you about shoes/football/North Korea. Imagine you’re going to have a quiz at the end of it all and you’ll have some idea of the pressure documentation and information can place on some people.
Wear sunglasses
Not when outside in the sunlight… but when inside reading a book, or using a screen. It’ll give you some insight into the importance of big, clear fonts with lots of white space on the page.

If you find your limits, you may have more empathy for those who are reaching theirs, and ultimately you’ll be willing to go the extra mile to make your work more accessible.