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Three Mastercards with notches indicating credit, debit, or prepaid.
Image: Mastercard

Accessibility is not something most of us think much about. The word accessibility refers to the design of products or environments for access by all users. People with disabilities think about accessibility a lot. For example, people with a visual impairment use a technology called computer screen readers. As the name implies, when a visually impaired person displays a webpage, the words on the page are read and the person hears the words. An image on the page is a different situation.

Images should include alternative text (alt text) behind the scenes to describe the image. If alt text is not provided for images, the image information is inaccessible to people who cannot see. When the developer took the time to add the alt text, the information is read by the screen reader for people who are blind, as well as to people who turn off images (for example, in areas with expensive or low bandwidth). The alt text is also available to technologies which cannot see images, such as search engines. When encountering the image at the top of this story, the visually impaired person will hear the words I inserted in the alt text, “Three Mastercards with notches indicating credit, debit, or prepaid.”

More than a billion people struggle with near-vision impairment, 253 million people are visually impaired to some degree, 217 million people have severe or moderate visual impairment, and 36 million people are blind. Adding the alternative text takes the developer seconds. Having it be there means a lot to the visually impaired.

Another aspect of accessibility is keyboard input. Some people cannot use a mouse, including many older users with limited fine motor control. An accessible website does not rely on the mouse. Instead, it makes all functionality available using a combination of keys from a keyboard. I have watched blind people surf the web as proficiently as anyone. Some people with disabilities use assistive technology which mimics the keyboard, such as speech input. Smartphone and desktops can not only transcribe spoken words, they can respond to spoken commands such as “enter”, “tab”, “F3”, “Shift-Command”, etc. I learned to do this when I was recovering from a total shoulder replacement.

A more specific example of accessibility has to do with credit cards. We take them for granted. Most of us (who are not yet using digital wallets) carry more than one debit or credit card. We can easily tell which is which, but a blind person cannot. Some cards have used Braille, invented by Louis Braille (1809–1852), a French educator blind from the age of 3. Braille has been used as an option on the surface of credit and debit cards, but it has fallen out of favor. Only one in ten blind people can read Braille and almost 90 percent of America’s blind children are not being taught Braille. Mastercard came up with an elegant alternative solution.

Mastercard has developed a flat, streamlined design. Putting a notch on the side of the card allows those with sight impairments to gain more financial independence. The debit card will have a square notch, the credit card will have a rounded notch, and the prepaid card a triangular one. Mastercard has also implemented 150 million checkout points worldwide with a signature audio transaction completion jingle, which the company calls a “sonic acceptance sound”.

Screen readers, alternative text, voice recognition, and the notched cards are just a few of many examples of creating accessibility. Those with impairments think about the word a lot. Anyone designing and building anything, should take the extra effort to be sure they are offering accessibility. We need 100% of our population to be productive.