I Broke My Hand So You Don't Have To (First-Hand Accessibility Insights)
We take accessibility quite seriously here at This Dot because we know it's important. Still, throughout my career, I've seen many projects where accessibility was brushed aside for reasons like "our users don't really use keyboard shortcuts" or "we need to ship fast; we can add accessibility later."
The truth is, that "later" often means "never." And it turns out, anyone could break their hand, like I did. I broke my dominant hand and spent four weeks in a cast, effectively rendering it useless and forcing me to work left-handed. I must thus apologize for the misleading title; this post should more accurately be dubbed "second-hand" accessibility insights.
The Perspective of a Developer
Firstly, it's not the end of the world. I adapted quickly to my temporary disability, which was, for the most part, a minor inconvenience. I had to type with one hand, obviously slower than my usual pace, but isn't a significant part of a software engineer's work focused on thinking?
Here's what I did and learned:
- I moved my mouse to the left and started using it with my left hand. I adapted quickly, but the experience wasn't as smooth as using my right hand. I could perform most tasks, but I needed to be more careful and precise.
- Many actions require holding a key while pressing a mouse button (e.g., visiting links from the IDE), which is hard to do with one hand.
- This led me to explore trackpad options. Apart from the Apple Magic Trackpad, choices were limited. As a Windows user (I know, sorry), that wasn't an option for me. I settled for a cheap trackpad from Amazon. A lot of tasks became easier; however, the trackpad eventually malfunctioned, sending me back to the mouse.
- I don't know a lot of IDE shortcuts. I realized how much I've been relying on a mouse for my work, subconsciously refusing to learn new keyboard shortcuts (I'll be returning my senior engineer license shortly). So I learned a few new ones, which is good, I guess.
- Some keyboard shortcuts are hard to press with one hand. If you find yourself in a similar situation, you may need to remap some of them.
- Copilot became my best friend, saving me from a lot of slow typing, although I did have to correct and rewrite many of its suggestions.
The Perspective of a User
As a developer, I was able to get by and figure things out to be able to work effectively. As a user, however, I got to experience the other side of the coin and really feel the accessibility (or lack thereof) on the web.
Here are a few insights I gained:
- A lot of websites apparently tried_ to implement keyboard navigation, but failed miserably. For example, a big e-commerce website I tried to use to shop for the aforementioned trackpad seemed to work fine with keyboard navigation at first, but once I focused on the search field, I found myself unable to tab out from it. When you make the effort to implement keyboard navigation, please make sure it works properly and it doesn't get broken with new changes. I wholeheartedly recommend having e2e tests (e.g. with Playwright) that verify the keyboard navigation works as expected.
- A few websites and web apps I tried to use were completely unusable with the keyboard and were designed to be used with a mouse only.
- Some sites had elaborate keyboard navigation, with custom keyboard shortcuts for different functionality. That took some time to figure out, and I reckon it's not as intuitive as the designers thought it would be. Once a user learns the shortcuts, however, it could make their life easier, I suppose.
- A lot of interactive elements are much smaller than they should be, making it hard to accurately click on them with your weaker hand. Designers, I beg you, please make your buttons bigger. I once worked on an application that had a "gloves mode" for environments where the operators would be using gloves, and I feel like maybe the size we went with for the "gloves mode" should be the standard everywhere, especially as screens get bigger and bigger.
- Misclicking is easy, especially using your weaker hand. Be it a mouse click or just hitting an Enter key on accident. Kudos to all the developers who thought about this and implemented a confirmation dialog or other safety measures to prevent users from accidentally deleting or posting something. I've however encountered a few apps that didn't have any of these, and those made me a bit anxious, to be honest. If this is something you haven't thought about when developing an app, please start doing so, you might save someone a lot of trouble.
Some Second-Hand Insights
I was only a little bit impaired by being temporarily one-handed and it was honestly a big pain. In this post, I've focused on my anecdotal experience as a developer and a user, covering mostly keyboard navigation and mouse usage. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for visually impaired users, or users with other disabilities, to use the web.
I must confess I haven't always been treating accessibility as a priority, but I've certainly learned my lesson. I will try to make sure all the apps I work on are accessible and inclusive, and I will try to test not only the keyboard navigation, ARIA attributes, and other accessibility features, but also the overall experience of using the app with a screen reader.
I hope this post will at least plant a little seed in your head that makes you think about what it feels like to be disabled and what would the experience of a disabled person be like using the app you're working on.
Conclusion: The Humbling Realities of Accessibility
The past few weeks have been an eye-opening journey for me into the world of accessibility, exposing its importance not just in theory but in palpable, daily experiences. My short-term impairment allowed me to peek into a life where simple tasks aren't so simple, and convenient shortcuts are a maze of complications. It has been a humbling experience, but also an illuminating one.
As developers and designers, we often get caught in the rush to innovate and to ship, leaving behind essential elements that make technology inclusive and humane. While my temporary disability was an inconvenience, it's permanent for many others. A broken hand made me realize how broken our approach towards accessibility often is.
The key takeaway here isn't just a list of accessibility tips; it's an earnest appeal to empathize with your end-users. "Designing for all" is not a checkbox to tick off before a product launch; it's an ongoing commitment to the understanding that everyone interacts with technology differently.
When being empathetic and sincerely thinking about accessibility, you never know whose life you could be making easier. After all, disability isn't a special condition; it's a part of the human condition.
And if you still think "Our users don't really use keyboard shortcuts" or "We can add accessibility later," remember that you're not just failing a compliance checklist, you're failing real people....