An estimated 253 million people are affected by some form of blindness or visual impairment. But with no universal standard for how to build accessible digital products, their experiences are varied and wildly inconsistent. This article will explore why and when developers should consider accessibility and how to achieve it. It’ll touch on aspects of disabilities, accessibility, usability, and inclusivity of websites and applications. The intention is to build interest within the community and provide a starting point for developing and building accessibility into everything we do.
- To explain what disabilities are, temporary and permanent and understand their impact
- To provide resources for information on accessibility guidelines
- To advise on the legal requirements surrounding accessibility
What is accessibility?
Simply put, accessibility is making something more inclusive for those with disabilities. Accessible web content allows everyone to interact with it. In order to accomplish accessibility, it is necessary to consider two essential elements.
- Assistive Technologies
- ~Any hardware or software used to access content.
- ~~Glasses, spelling and grammar assistants, braille keyboards, special mouse, screen readers, voice assistants (Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Google Home)
- Adaptive Strategies
- ~Any technique used to improve interaction.
- ~~Closed captions, auditory descriptions, increased text size, reduced mouse speed
It should be noted that some people use multiple assistive technologies or adaptive strategies together in order to interact with websites and applications.
Why accessibility is important
No one sets out to build an application or experience that limits access to others. But when websites and applications are designed to work well for everyone—regardless of their device, location or ability—we remove communication barriers that many people face in their physical surroundings and create a more rich, inviting virtual space.
Web accessibility makes a strong business case, too. Those who build for it enjoy increased market share and a positive brand reputation. Being recognized as an accessible compliant company sets the company apart from the competition. A web accessible compliant site or application can also prevent possible litigation.
- ~In 2012, the National Association of the Deaf brought a lawsuit against streaming service Netflix for failing to provide adequate closed captioning on most of its “Watch Instantly” content.
- ~Nike came under fire in 2017 because both websites it operates – Nike.com and Converse.com – were inaccessible to visually impaired users, a very common violation of Title III website accessibility guidelines.
- ~Believe it or not, the world’s top ecommerce service was sued as recently as 2018 over accessibility barriers to users who are blind or visually impaired.
- ~On January 3, 2019, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Beyonce Knowles’ company, Park Entertainment, because the website that sold concert tickets and other goods and services related to Beyonce’s music was missing several fundamentals of website accessibility.
- Burger King
- ~In early 2018, the company was sued by a visually impaired woman who claimed she could not use the website without assistance.
What is a disability?
A disability is a mismatch between a person and their environment. There are 5 categories of disabilities:
Motor, Cognition, Vision, Hearing, Speech.
Is your disability permanent or temporary? Web accessibility benefits people that have permanent disabilities but also benefits people without disabilities, such as:
- People using mobile phones, smart watches, smart TVs, IoTs, and other devices with small screens, different input modes, etc.
- Older people with changing abilities due to aging
- People with “temporary disabilities” such as a broken arm, illness or lost glasses
- People with “situational limitations” such as in bright sunlight or in an environment where they cannot listen to audio, dead batteries, cold fingers from environmental factors, and small links on mobile devices requiring the pinch to expand technique
- People using a slow Internet connection, or who have limited or expensive bandwidth
There are currently more than 1 billion people with disabilities in the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) a disabled person is anyone who has “a problem in body function or structure, an activity limitation, has a difficulty in executing a task or action; with a participation restriction”. An estimated 253 million people are affected by some form of blindness and visual impairment. This represents 3.2% of the world’s population. That’s twice Mexico’s population*! (WHO)
According to the CDC, 61 million adults in the US live with a disability. That’s 26% of adults, and 4.6% with a vision disability. More than 375,000 Americans become disabled every year. (cdc)
How can we make our products accessible?
In order to make websites and applications accessible to the needs of people with disabilities, look no further than the principles of user-centered design. Here are just a few examples of how a company can address accessibility.
- Allow Lots of Time
There’s more to accessibility than just updating some user interface (UI) items and changing colors. There is a different approach and manner of thinking required, especially for people without disabilities to create applications for people with disabilities. It’s about design, and providing flexibility to meet everyone’s needs regardless of their ability. It’s about enabling users to interact with the site or application whether it’s via screen reader, braille keyboard or any other assistive technology. It’s about the social model of disability, a way of viewing the world—best understood by developing with people with disabilities themselves.
To design websites and applications in this manner requires thinking about accessibility upfront, testing with many different technologies, devices, browsers and methods of interactivity. All of this requires time for designers, architects, developers, testers and management to approve and complete. Accessibility is not an overnight process. It's a shift in how you think about building.
- Bake-in Accessibility
It is necessary to be concerned with accessibility from the start of a project. It is simpler and less costly to implement than attempting to make a product accessible after it has been built. Understanding the governance and policies that are in place for your company is a starting point. Setting objectives are necessary. Objectives should include deliverables for the project team, timelines for the deliverables, and what measures will be used for success to know if the objectives are met. Securing a budget for the project is required to provide tooling, training, support and possible recruitment to meet the objectives. Keeping all of this in mind from the beginning, provides an accessibility friendly environment to create websites and applications that are usable by everyone.
- Draw a Line
Setting a time when sites and applications will be designed and built with accessibility will help everyone in the company prepare for, and understand what is required to meet your accessibility goals. Making a product accessible never stops though and as new technologies are created, and the way in which people interact with content changes, adding, designing and developing for accessibility is an ongoing process.
- Focus on Focus Order
It’s important to define how a user would naturally navigate the product and provide an intuitive flow to all of the information and features. Information should be presented in a clear and orderly fashion. The application should adapt to present content differently yet maintain the structure and functionality. Page headings, lists and images need to be coded appropriately to meet the adaptability guidelines presented in Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
- Use Landmarks
Landmarks are regions within the website or application that group items together. Working in one region allows the work to be broken down into manageable parts. It also allows for smaller site or application changes that can be developed and tested quickly. To illustrate landmarks in an application:
- Use Proper HTML Semantics
The complexity of today's applications may require extra attributes such as Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA), custom event handlers, and/or hidden DOM elements. Whenever possible, consider using defined HTML elements as they have many accessibility features built in. By leveraging existing accessibility features, the developer can focus on functionality while ensuring a consistent, familiar experience for users with a disability.
- Prepare for Testing
It is important to pay close attention to testing the application. Whenever possible, people with disabilities should be consulted. In absence of these individuals, testing should be done on desktop and mobile devices and with a screen reader, such as VoiceOver for Apple products. Testing on multiple browsers, and devices from various manufacturers is necessary and becoming the norm in order to meet accessibility requirements of the user community. Having the talent and tools in place before testing starts is beneficial to prepare your project team for development of web accessibility.
An example of an accessibility workflow:
Accessibility is the law
Section 508 Standards are established and maintained by the U. S. Access Board. Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, agencies must give employees with disabilities and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others. (digital.gov)
For information regarding accessibility, consult the following:
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The globally recognized guidelines for creating accessible digital experiences from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG). Part of a series of accessibility guidelines.
The User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) documents explain how to make user agents accessible to people with disabilities
Many businesses compete for ¼ of 1% of the market for their brand, and are missing out on 15 - 20% of the population who have a disability. Creating applications that are accessible by everyone can increase market share by allowing people with disabilities to interact and take advantage of the opportunities the application offers.
Having the right resources involved from management to recruitment are all necessary for a successful transition to making applications accessible. As more applications are developed and become available in a broader more inclusive environment, the tools to accommodate their development will continue to evolve. Therefore, it is necessary to continue to stay involved with the trends and needs of accessibility. Web accessibility is necessary for some to overcome barriers in the physical environment, but is useful for everyone.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2 is developed through the W3C process in cooperation with individuals and organizations around the world, with a goal of providing a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally. The WCAG documents explain how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities. Web “content” generally refers to the information in a web page or web application, including:
- natural information such as text, images, and sounds
- code or markup that defines structure, presentation, etc.
ATAG:The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) is part of a series of accessibility guidelines, including the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG).
The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) documents explain how to:
- Make the authoring tools themselves accessible, so that people with disabilities can create web content, and
- Help authors create more accessible web content — specifically: enable, support, and promote the production of content that conforms to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
UAAG:The User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) documents explain how to make user agents accessible to people with disabilities. User agents include browsers, browser extensions, media players, readers and other applications that render web content
UAAG is part of a series of accessibility guidelines, including the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG)
WAI:The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) develops technical specifications, guidelines, techniques, and supporting resources that describe accessibility solutions. These are considered international standards for web accessibility; for example, WCAG 2.0 is also an ISO standard: ISO/IEC 40500.ARIA:Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) is a set of attributes that define ways to make web content and web applications more accessible to people with disabilities.
WCAG 2 OverviewDate: Updated 1 February 2022. First published July 2005. Editor: Shawn Lawton Henry.Developed with input from the Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG) and the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (AG WG).
ATAG OverviewDate: Updated 1 July 2020. First published July 2005.Editor: Shawn Lawton Henry.Developed with input from the Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG) and the Authoring Tool Accessibility Working Group (AUWG).
UAAG OVerviewDate: Updated May 2016. First published July 2005.Editors: Jeanne Spellman, Jim Allan, Shawn Lawton Henry.Developed with input from the Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG) and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (UAWG).
Introduction to Web AccessibilityDate: Updated 6 October 2021. First published February 2005. Changelog.Editor: Shawn Lawton Henry.Developed by the Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG).
Introduction to AccessibilityDate: updated by ToniBonittoGSA on May 03, 2021 at 6:02 pm ET
Disabled People in the world 2021: Facts and FiguresDate: Updated November 26, 2021
Disability Impacts All of UsDate: Page last reviewed: September 16, 2020
Building an Accessible Product medium.comDate: Accessed Mar 6, 2022
Title III Lawsuits: 10 Big Companies Sued Over Website AccessibilityDate: Accessed Mar 7, 2022
MDN Web DocsDate: Last modified: Feb 18, 2022, by MDN contributors