According to Wikipedia, accessibility is defined as “the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people with disabilities.” Perhaps a wheelchair ramp comes to mind, as it is arguably the most recognizable accessibility feature; however, there are myriad others. The internet has opened up a whole new range of issues related to accessibility, in particular to the ability of persons with disabilities to access website content and functionality. This is generally described as web content accessibility, a domain that has evolved significantly over the past decade or so.
Accessibility shouldn’t be considered an add-on or an appendage to building a website, in the same way that people with disabilities, such as sensory impairment, aren’t considered an appendage to society at large. I, for instance, wear contact lenses. I am nearsighted to the point that I cannot read words that are more than about 3 or 4 inches away without a corrective lens. Am I disabled? Am I not? The reality is, it doesn’t matter what we call it. The idea that my abilities satisfy some binary moniker like this is a dangerous oversimplification. What matters is that I expect, I dare say I feel entitled, to be able to consume the same public-facing content those with perfect vision can without any undue burden being placed upon me. I can’t imagine visiting Wikipedia one day and finding out that the only way I can learn about the Large Hadron Collider, rather than reading the page, would be to call a phone number for support. Ludicrous, right? So why shouldn’t the same level of expectation apply to folks with vision worse than mine, or to folks with no sight at all? And let’s not forget disabilities outside of the strictly visual—such as auditory, speech, and other physical or cognitive categories.
The reality is that web content accessibility is not a matter of compliance, it is a matter of mentality. And we have to start viewing accessibility as an essential part of the creative and technical process. Something baked in from the very start. “We” being agencies, boutiques, and web development shops as well as user experience practitioners, designers, writers, editors, developers, testers, and managers. We cannot continue to think of a blind person as a “persona” or part of a user group with a distinct set of characteristics, motivations, attitudes, and expected behaviors. The point here is to recognize the individual on the other side of the screen and not fall into the trap of generalizing the consumers of web content. A blind person is a unique individual who deserves the same access to the wealth of information and resources available on the World Wide Web as anyone else. In this regard, we are all part of the same group, that is, people for whom access to public information is equal and unimpeded. And that means all people and all information. That is the mentality shift required.
Ironically, websites are largely accessible by default. Meaning that simple hypertext markup language doesn’t necessarily put obstacles in the way of users. It’s not until we, the people who make websites, begin infusing those sites with sophisticated visual styling and formatting, rich interactive effects, graphical animations and sound effects, videos, and other bells and whistles that we begin to go astray. That’s not to say that this kind of flourish and embellishment should not exist, it’s just that we must consider how different people will experience each of them differently, in the context of their own abilities—and ensure that for any sense-exclusive element that exists on the site, there is an equivalent alternative accessible by another, different sense. For example, if I can’t see it, I should at least be able to hear it, and if I can’t hear it, I need to be able to see it… and so on. In a way, a website without accessibility is no different than a book that is unavailable in braille, or the entrance of a public building without wheelchair access. This illustrates the necessity of thinking of digital public spaces like websites in the same way we think of physical public spaces like libraries.
What has brought so much attention to this topic in the past few years, particularly in the United States, is the change in US law prompted by the Americans with Disabilities Act that went into effect in 2009. In particular, Title III of said act stipulates that a publicly available, consumer-facing website must ensure a sufficient level of content accessibility for persons with disabilities such that they have an equal opportunity to acquire information, engage in interactions, and take advantage of services—with an equivalent ease of use—as a person without a disability. That applies to any publicly available website, not just those whose target audiences are thought to be users with disabilities. The consequences of this law are sweeping, and a number of well-known US companies have paid millions of dollars in liabilities as a result.
That being said, the thrust of this article isn’t concerned with the legal implications of building non-accessible sites. My objective is rather to highlight the ethical issue: it isn’t morally right to develop content that cannot be consumed by the population at large. It’s not only unlawful, it’s downright wrong.
Now there are generally understood best practices for web content accessibility, such as:
- Providing alternative text for each image that is descriptive
- Including audio descriptions for video content, as well as captions
- Ensuring website functionality, headings, navigation, and links are entirely operable through a keyboard interface, without requiring specific keystroke timings
- Establishing minimum contrast ratios for text and images and providing the ability for users to change background colors, font colors, and font sizes
Those are some of the cut-and-dried pieces that one would typically run into in a cursory examination of access-related issues on the internet. However, there are broader, further-reaching standards that organizations must consider. A modest sampling of wider concerns that must be addressed would include:
- Designating a website accessibility coordinator and/or committee to be responsible for a continued focus on accessibility issues and compliance with company policies
- Codifying the organization’s accessibility policy by composing an explicitly stated set of principles to govern organizational activities related to its products and services
- Clearly articulating objectives and success criteria related to the accessibility policy in a manner that is specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time bound
- Considering process changes and enhancements to ensure the delivery of accessible content
- Establishing an evaluation schedule for internal and external teams to assess standards, compliance with standards, and objectives moving forward
- Designing and implementing a monitoring framework to ensure continuous compliance with the ever-shifting and evolving technology and legal landscapes
- Ingesting and incorporating ongoing user feedback via usability testing, web analytics, A/B comparisons, and other automated and manual mechanisms
- Creating an accessibility training curriculum and conducting sessions with the regularity they require and deserve
And that’s just the start. As the industry becomes more aware of web-content-accessibility concerns, it’s important to ask what the root of our motivation is to begin with. A question that is answered quite simply and unequivocally by saying, it’s not only the lawful thing to do—it’s the right thing to do.
For more information and resources related to web content accessibility, check out some of the links below:
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