Accessibility – what, who, and why it matters

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June 7, 2019 10:24 am

Accessibility – what, who, and why it matters



Global Accessibility Awareness Day inspired us to take a look into what web accessibility really means. We thought we’d share some quick ways to get started with making your products accessible, and why it needs to be at the top of your list when designing for the web.  

What it isn’t

Designing with accessibility in mind has often been considered as an afterthought. An “add-on”. Something to think about “if you’ve got time.” Or just “giving something more contrast.”

That is what accessibility is not.

What it is

When researching, creating or designing in digital, web accessibility is ensuring your actions are inclusive of people that have disabilities, along with those that may access digital technologies differently to the majority population.

The word ‘disability’ itself is a discussion for another article, but when we think of ‘disability’ in technology, we typically think of those that have difficulties with hearing or vision. However, the scope of ‘disability’ is incredibly broad and encompasses a whole range of different conditions – often with varying severity, along with situational and temporary conditions.

Who is it we should be thinking about then?

In an estimated population of a grand 66,925,768 million living in the UK, Scope states that over 13.9 million of us are living with some sort of disability. That’s around 20% of the population.

We need to think about disability and constraints on a very vast, very fluid spectrum. Disability does (or possibly will) affect us all at some point in our lives. We’ll all get older. The human body ages – one day our eyesight may not be what it was, or we may develop degenerative illnesses that affect how we live in our day-to-day. We cannot know for sure what is waiting around the corner for us.

And I don’t say this to be all doom and gloom. I say this to bring awareness to the fact that we are all fallible. And rather than thinking of people with disabilities as a ‘separate group to think about later’, we need to be inclusive in our intentions and our work. Technology needs to work for everyone.

We need to work for everyone.

Persona spectrum from the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit
file:///C:/Users/Lucy/Downloads/inclusive_toolkit_manual_final.pdf

“Disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”

World Health Organisation

Microsoft’s Persona Spectrum highlights the accessible needs that can also include situational or temporary limitations, such as having broken your arm, or temporarily struggling with hearing because of an ear infection. Although we cannot compare situational or temporary disabilities with more permanent ones, all these constraints have an effect on how the user interacts with the world around them.

There have been many examples already where the Persona Spectrum can be applied to Inclusive Design to create unexpected benefits for all. Microsoft explains that closed captioning was originally created for those struggling with hearing; but captioning also benefits people in other contexts, such as loud environments like a pub or airport terminal, or when teaching a child to read. So, the chances are if you’re being inclusive in the design of your product or service, that means it will most likely benefit all of your users in some shape or form.

Consequences of failing to be inclusive

Adding to that, not being inclusive can land you in trouble, thanks to the Equality Act 2010. One part of the Act aims to protect people with disabilities from being discriminated against. This discrimination is not limited to in-person interactions and extends to products and services as well (such as a website).

When we exclude people or communities because we struggle to be inclusive or because we lack the understanding, that’s when tech has the potential to become discriminatory. That’s when people are left out of being able to use technology to do necessary or life-enhancing tasks (adding extra difficulty to their lives), because accessibility was never thought about during design.

“Exclusion happens when we solve problems using our own biases.”

Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit

So, in the user experience field, accessibility needs to not be thought of as a nice little extra – but rather an essential element. You may have heard this being shouted about before, but it bears repeating, every user should be able to interact with your product or service regardless of their abilities and experience. There’s also a good chance that by your product meeting accessibility standards, it will increase the user experience for everyone.

So, what do we need to do to get started?

If you’ve not come across it before, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 is a great resource to turn to when getting started. Internationally recognised, the WCAG 2.1 details guidelines to support you in designing for web accessibility, and how to work towards making your web-based product perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Gov.uk also has several great resources relating to accessibility, and advice on meeting the WCAG 2.1 requirements.

Bear in mind that implementing these points, does not necessarily mean that there won’t be any more obstacles to accessibility. Think of them as what they are – guidelines rather than perfect rules. But they’re a great start.

However, the only way to ensure you are being inclusive, and that as many of your actual users as possible are able to use your product, is by conducting regular research with the people that will be using it including those with accessibility needs. Getting your product or service in front of your users to interact with is a must at any stage of product development. It is never too early to do discovery research to figure out whether your product is solving a real need, as well as it never being too late to uncover how people of all abilities use your app or website.

UX 101: Get to know your users. Speak with them.

You absolutely don’t need to be an expert in inclusive design to get started. I don’t claim to be an expert either. And that’s okay. Because the absolute best people that know what their accessibility needs are, are those people themselves.

Advocate for what is right, not what is ‘easy’

When it comes to those of us in UX, we like to shout that we’re the advocates for our users. ‘We’re their voice.’ Their ‘chance to be heard.’

So, we need to ensure that we’re fighting and advocating for every possible user, independent of physical, mental, or technical capabilities and constraints. Every person’s ‘voice’ matters. And it matters even more to hear the voices of those people that are often oppressed and discriminated against.

The good news is, it does seem as though digital product design is slowly changing. A11y – the social media numeronym shorthand for the term accessibility, is cropping up all over social media. Although there are a few debates around the usage of coded language (being more difficult to understand) for the purpose of accessibility, regardless, it is a good thing that it is being mentioned more and more.

Now, more and more people are pushing for accessibility to be a standard across the board, which is great. I hope that in a time soon, accessibility is commonly thought about in every digital agency and organisation; that in UX design we’ll always include the thoughts, feelings and experiences of those that struggle in ways that may be different to us; and that we commit to creating products and services that benefit every one of us.

Who’s with me?