The term “disability” connotes an absence of ability, but is like saying “dis-weight” or “dis-height.” All living people have some abilities. Unfortunately, history is filled with examples of a focus on dis-ability, on what is missing, and on ensuing attempts to replace lost function to make people match a rigid world. Although often well intended, such a focus assumes humans must be adapted, and that interfaces, devices, and environments get to remain as they are. These built things embody numerous “ability assumptions” imbued by their designers, and yet remain unaware of their users’ abilities. They also remain unaware of the situations their users are in, or how those situations affect their users’ abilities. An important shift in perspective comes by allowing people to “remain as they are,” asking instead how interfaces, devices, and environments can bear the burden of becoming more suitable to their users’ situated abilities. I call this perspective and the principles that accompany it “Ability-Based Design,” where the human abilities required to use a technology in a given context are questioned, and systems are made operable by or adaptable to alternative abilities. From this perspective, all people have varying degrees of ability, and different situations lead to different ability limitations, some long-term and some momentary. Some ability limitations come mostly from within the self, others from mostly outside the self. Ability-Based Design considers the whole “landscape of ability,” honoring the human at its center and asking more of our technologies. In this talk, I will cover a decade’s worth of projects related to Ability-Based Design, some directed at “people with disabilities” and others directed at “people in disabling situations.” Rather than dive into any one project, I will convey a space of explored possibilities. I will also put forth a grand challenge: that anyone, anywhere, at any time can interact with technologies ideally suited to their specific situated abilities, and that our technologies do the work to achieve this fit. It is our job to make this possible.
Jacob O. Wobbrock is an Associate Professor in the Information School and an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, where he directs the Mobile & Accessible Design Lab. He is a founding member of the design: use: build: Group (DUB Group) and the multi-departmental Master of HCI & Design program at UW. Dr. Wobbrock’s research seeks to scientifically understand people’s interactions with computers and information, and to improve those interactions through design and engineering, especially for people with disabilities. His specific research topics include interaction techniques, human performance measurement and modeling, HCI research and design methods, mobile computing, and accessible computing. Dr. Wobbrock has co-authored over 120 peer-reviewed publications, receiving 19 paper awards, including 7 best papers and 7 honorable mentions from ACM CHI. For his work on accessible computing, he will receive the 2017 ACM SIGCHI Social Impact Award in May 2017. He is also the recipient of an NSF CAREER award and five other National Science Foundation grants. He is on the editorial board of ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction. His advisees, to whom he owes his success, have become professors at Harvard, Cornell, Colorado, Maryland, Brown, Simon Fraser, and elsewhere. Dr. Wobbrock received a B.S. with Honors in Symbolic Systems and an M.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University; he received a Ph.D. in Human-Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon University. Upon graduation, he was honored with CMU’s School of Computer Science Distinguished Dissertation Award.