The essence of accessibility

Topics covered by this post.

Words 'Accessible Entrance' painted onto brick wall with arrow pointing right.

A different perspective

Accessibility is a topic that's featured in almost all of the tech conferences I've been to. This going back some years, but I have a vivid memory of listening to Alice Barlett presenting her talk Burn Your Select Tags. I think this was the point at which I started to become interested in accessibility.

If I turn and say to you the words accessibility and disability, what is the first mental image you have? Don't tell me yet. First, ask google the same two words and then take a look at the image results. Was it what you expected?

We tend to think of disability as being a problem with a person. They are disabled because they have something 'wrong' with them. But Alice's user testing made me re-evaluate that model of thinking. I was fascinated by her clips of user testing which showed how people struggled to carry out simple tasks on their website. I think this was also the first time I'd seen the power of user testing, and, as I watched something clicked.

Disability isn't about a person's capabilities or impairments. It's about design and how we build our digital products.

It's us, the designers, the developers and content creators who place access barriers in our work.

Consequently, we are responsible for dis-abling a considerable proportion of our users. This perspective is called the social model of disability.

Alice made me see the essence of accessibility. The accessibility improvements introduced were not only essential for people with disabilities but that these changes would make using the web easier for many others too. Myself included.

Argh, who cares?

No-one, it would seem.

In February 2019, US charity WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind) launched a new accessibility report the WebAIM Million. It carries out an annual audit of the top one million homepages looking for automatically detectable accessibility errors checking against WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) level AA.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are a set of technical standards. WCAG 2.0 was released in 2008 and defines 12 guidelines categorised under the POUR principles of accessibility. Each guideline is broken down into more specific requirements, divided into three conformance levels - A, AA, and AAA. Together, these levels define 61 success criteria for accessibility.

Ok, so getting back to the webAIM Million report. They found that 97.8% of homepages failed to meet the WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines.

In February 2020 this number had gone up to 98.1%. And if that wasn't bad enough, automated testing does not pick up all possible errors. These results are only a small portion of all possible WCAG failures. This means that we are probably looking at less than 1% of homepages meeting accessibility criteria. In 2020.

Why should we care?

There are corporate responsibility arguments, legislation and human rights obligations that all form part of the business case in favour of implementing an accessibility strategy.

The person

We're all different with wide ranging accessibility needs -

  • auditory
  • cognitive
  • neurological
  • physical
  • speech
  • visual

If we think in broader terms, accessibility overlaps into areas of inclusivity, such as universal design or the digital divide. This wider scope encompasses geographical location, economic situation, education, language, age, gender... and of course not forgetting disabilities.

Accessibility isn't just about a warm fuzzy feeling because it's the right thing to do (although it is absolutely the right thing to do). The benefits are not just for the 'typical' person with a disability.

Accessibility requirements if met, benefit our older population, people using mobile devices and people with situational limitations. Are you aware that 8% of men are colour blind? Or that 15% of people over the age of 45 have some form of reduced vision?

Think about users with cognitive or learning disabilities, anxiety or panic disorders. People with age-related issues such as impaired vision or a slight hand tremor. These symptoms can be subtle and slow to creep up on an individual. A person might not even be aware that 'normal' for them is not quite the same as for others. Disabilities can temporary - a broken arm, an eye infection. And disability can be invisible. I know this all too well as I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. I may look OK on the outside, but on some days when a migraine has exploded, my arthritis is flaring, I'm struggling to focus with my glasses and my head is filled with brain fog, I'm definitely not OK on the inside.

The tech

We have so many 'mobile' choices available to access digital content -

  • smartphones and tablets
  • digital TVs
  • smartwatches and wearable devices
  • devices in car dashboards and aeroplane seatbacks

IoT (Internet of Things) are on the rise -

  • fridges with built-in online systems
  • security systems
  • vending machines
  • "smart home" environment controllers

And by very nature, being mobile raises many issues to consider -

  • different methods of input - speech and touchscreens
  • situational limitations, for example, trying to read a screen in bright sunlight
  • a user is unable to click small targets because pinch to zoom has been disabled
  • A blind user attempting to complete a form, but the field labels have been replaced with placeholder text to save space on a small screen.
  • a wheelchair user with a mobile device positioned to landscape in a holder, but the website only works in one single orientation - portrait
  • a user whose only access to the web is through their mobile device

The legislation

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD) is the most cited document regarding digital accessibility. Article 9 of the convention states:

"People with a disability have the right to access all aspects of society on an equal basis with others including the physical environment, transportation, information and communications, and other facilities provided to the public."

164 countries signed the document and 180 of those countries have made it legally binding. Most require compliance with either WCAG 2.0 or WCAG 2.1.

Here in the UK, the Equalities Act 2010 non-discriminatory law which applies to both public and private sectors requires compliance with WCAG 2.0.

Still not convinced?

We've covered the essence of accessibility, but implementing it company-wide is a massively daunting task. It needs cross-departmental steering groups, with buy-in from all the staff. It's important people understand why accessibility matters, and what the business case is. However, if people are still not convinced, then consider this.

The consequences of doing nothing

Your website or app will not only cause frustration and anxiety for many users, but will also waste valuable time for which they will certainly not thank you. Continue to ignore prioritising accessibility and as a result, risk losing reputation, a loss of revenue and possible litigation.

It's time to care

When I attended Alice's talk, coding was my hobby and I was still weaving my own merry path through learning web design online. She had caught my attention but all this accessibility stuff seemed way too complicated for a beginner. So it remained nothing more than a topic I was interested in.

But now I am a software engineer and part of an accessibility steering group which is exciting. I'm starting at the beginning and this is the first in a short series of blog posts to share my learnings from a free course An Introduction to Web Accessibility. I'd recommend you take the course too, it's helped demystify where to start.

On a side note, you may have noticed that my website fails accessibility standards on too many counts and as a result, I hang my head in shame. I will be onto it, just as soon as I have finished turning my course notes into blog posts. Coming up next, a deeper look into WCAG and the POUR principles of accessibility.