The Importance of Web Accessibility
I recently spent time talking to a group of developers and designers about how they can improve the accessibility of their websites. When thinking about the user experience for a digital product as designers, it’s important to not just think about how we interact with the web ourselves. A key mantra for any product designer should be, “I am not the target audience.” We design through research and problem-solving, not self-reflection or self-referential design.
Years ago when I first started thinking about web accessibility I imagined users who suffered from a visual impairment. This was before online video added audio to our experiences. Later focus on accessibility grew to consider blindness, color blindness, and hearing impairments. All of which include a very large group of people. According to the National Federation of the Blind, there are over 7 million Americans with some impairment or vision loss. Even more staggering, current reports suggest 15% of American adults have trouble hearing. That’s roughly 37.5 million people over the age of 18 years old. As rich Internet experiences along with podcasts and video continue to play a role in company content strategies, it’s incredibly important that we consider all of these users.
The goal of this blog isn’t to remind us that there are visitors of our websites who have visual or hearing impairments. My goal instead is to communicate that product accessibility is even greater than permanent physical impairment and that at some point all users of a site or product may require accessible features even just momentarily.
It’s Not Just About Vision and Hearing
It’s common that when most people think about web accessibility they’re usually thinking about some form of disability in visual or auditory communication, but it’s so much more than that. We type on keyboards or touch the screens of our mobile phones that we carry in our hands. We use our hands to move a mouse to click links on a screen. All while we use our brain’s cognitive capacity to make decisions on which links to click and which information is the correct information we’re looking for.
When I say that accessibility on the web isn’t just about screen readers and video captions, what do I mean? There are traumatic injuries that impact our physical movement that include spinal cord injuries or the loss or damage of a limb. Diseases and congenital conditions like cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy (MD), multiple sclerosis (MS), spina bifida, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Parkinson’s disease, and others that can all influence how a person can use your website, control a mouse, or interact with your content. Some impairments came be temporary, while others are permanent.
Some could be as common as the loss of fine motor skills from aging or arthritis. Others might be a temporary sports injury like a sprained wrist preventing you from holding the mouse or phone normally while in use.
That doesn’t even consider impairments in cognition. Autism, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), Down Syndrome, dyslexia, learning disabilities, and issues with memory or problem solving are all part of this category. The list goes on and on. Everyone is using technology. They’re all your customers and you can’t pick and choose how you allow them to interact with your content or your business.
It’s Not Just Disability
After giving you lists and lists of conditions outside of vision and hearing impairments it’s important to know that thinking about accessibility isn’t just about disability it’s about “access”-ibility. Accessibility can be about the context of use for a product where a device is being used and by whom. Think about a doctor hurrying down the hall of a hospital emergency room, entering or reviewing patient chart information on a tablet. The data needs to be input accurately and quickly all while they use the device in motion, sometimes with a lack of sleep, and likely under job pressures.
Making these considerations requires the designer to consider button size, text readability, visual alerts and confirmations, as well as how the system might correct or protect the doctor from entering inaccurate information.
In 2010, the term “Responsive Web Design” was coined as a way to make the content of a web site adapt to smaller screens, removing the need to “pinch and zoom” to navigate the content. I would argue that making your website mobile friendly either through responsive content or through mobile specific sites is itself a form of accessibility for users of mobile devices.
Accessibility Isn’t an Option You Can Choose
Some business owners get caught up in the idea of needing to support certain levels of accessibility and not wanting to invest too much time. I sometimes hear the excuse that their market isn’t a particular type of user. My argument here is that accessibility isn’t a choice, it isn’t a stage in development, or a process to add into your workflow. Making web sites accessible is just HOW things are to be developed now. You should be thinking about how people will be using your content and regardless of their abilities or limitations, think about the various ways someone might have to navigate through that content. What if it isn’t through a web browser? What if they aren’t using a mouse? Plan for the ideal, but accommodate easily when things go wrong.
Most importantly, don’t put the concept of accessibility in a box. While testing for color contrast and screen readers is a great start we can do better as an industry. Bring accessibility considerations into your design process from the very beginning, consider context of use for your application, and always be asking “what if” in terms of how someone is engaging with you. At GravityFree we’re constantly looking at how we can improve our accessibility targets; making adjustments to how we develop new products constantly. We bring those benefits to our clients as we’re constantly learning and testing these new solutions.