The accessibility issue more people with disabilities should think about

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Graphical representation of Blockchain identifying 5 uses: smart contract, digital voting, data storage, mining, and digital identity

Accessible Cryptocurrency and Blockchain

The problem people with disabilities have with currency is as old as currency itself. People with disabilities live in a world where:

  • Coins are heavy, easy to drop, and hard to pick up. In the US the largest coin in regular circulation is a quarter, which doesn’t buy much these days.

Unscrupulous people take advantage of people with vision loss courtesy of some of the physical currency deficiencies identified above. A lawsuit is currently pending against Walmart where because the self-checkout kiosks were inaccessible, the blind plaintiffs were forced to use a staffed checkout where it is alleged that the cashier stole money from the customers. I use the word alleged loosely, because the cashier was fired which is I think all you need to know for that story.

Cryptocurrency has numerous benefits over physical currency for all parties involved. For the payer and payee, there is instant settlement, less fraud, less reliance on centralized banks, and improved availability in remote areas where physical banks storing physical currency may not exist in convenient locations. For the government, there is less cost and hassle associated with producing, transporting, and securing physical currency.

If money were tracked in an entirely digital manner, compliance on tax reporting would improve, because it would be much harder to earn undeclared income or claim deductions that never existed. Academics at respected universities are suggesting the US would benefit from transitioning to a national digital currency. However, if digital wallets (the software holding the digital currency) are not accessible, that would effectively result in replacing one inaccessible currency format for another inaccessible currency format from the perspective of people with disabilities. And in this case, digital inaccessibility may be harder to overcome than physical currency inaccessibility.

Blockchain

Blockchain is the technology that enables the existence of cryptocurrency. However, blockchain is about much much more than Bitcoin, Etherium or any other of the numerous cryptocurrencies that have entered into the market in the past 10 years since it was invented. Some of the non currency related subjects that blockchain technology might be suited for include:

  • Supply chain — Integrating blockchain with supply chain management would make it much easier to validate product claims like ‘organic’ or ‘100 % US made’. Additionally, the use of blockchain would make it much easier to where bags of contaminated romaine were shipped to and who purchased them.

All of the non-currency blockchain subjects identified above potentially come under Section 508 or the ADA.

  • Title transfer for property and voting would have some integration with a local, state, or federal government

While I am quite sure some a$$hole will litigate it, I don’t see any reason why the courts would come up for different rulings for accessibility requirements for blockchain than for buying burgers or groceries, taking a flight, or filing tax returns.

People with disabilities would be completely excluded from being able to use cryptocurrency or any innovations related to associated blockchain extensions without accessible user interfaces that allow them to search for blockchains and interpret the results. Even when the user interface is accessible, blockchain is largely a string of hexidecimal characters such as:

57309a5cf004fd4746ab508deb0093a5181fb93ead1fbf0b0ebf375b2e817fb6

Making this type of string user friendly currently requires the use of QR codes. Several years ago, David Berman wrote a brilliant article on how to make paper-based QR codes accessible to people who are blind. Extending that to QR codes that are entirely digital is not a significant leap from there. The 2016 Apple accessibility video clearly demonstrated that the technology exists to allow blind people to take pictures. It is work in these areas that will make blockchain not merely accessible but actually usable by people with disabilities.

Conclusion

Accessibility needs to be about more than just fixing inventions after they become public. The “reactive approach” to accessibility is expensive, causes delays, and the end result is usually an inferior experience. While the end result might be nominally WCAG compliant and accessible, it probably won’t be the optimal experience for people with disabilities.

True accessibility bakes in “how can we make this work better for people with disabilities?” when the design process begins. We have the opportunity to get this one right from the outset. When embarking on a paradigm shift that would benefit people with disabilities, make sure it actually works for people with disabilities. Let’s make it happen.

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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