Accessibility is the Right Thing

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ADA compliance and website accessibility may not be the top news items these days, but they are definitely important issues, with multiple recent lawsuits and some confusing verdicts being handed out. Most companies don’t set out to exclude site users with disabilities, but many do so inadvertently by not prioritizing accessible design. Given that browsing the internet is, for most of us, a highly visual experience, designing for the visually impaired may be one of our biggest challenges.

But wait, you might say, didn’t the 11th circuit court recently rule that websites are NOT public accommodations? Yes, but do we really believe that to be true? I don’t. The COVID pandemic revealed how important online shopping, services, and resources are, especially to older people, mobility impaired people, and people living in rural communities with limited in-person options. Besides, do you want to be dragged into compliance by threat of lawsuit, or would you rather design and build a site that is welcoming and accessible to all?

For this exploration of accessible design, I’m going to focus on people with visual impairment, but be aware that hearing impairment, epilepsy, autism, intellectual disabilities, and others will impact good design. For more thorough information about categories and types of disabilities, visit the ADA website.

Blind person with a cane approaches concrete steps

Accessiblity Features

More than 7 million people are living with uncorrectable vision loss, including more than 1 million Americans who are living with blindness. For these people, navigating a website that isn’t designed for accessibility can be frustrating or impossible. 

Visually impaired people generally interact with websites by using a screen reader and the keyboard. Using a mouse is impractical because they cannot see the location of the pointer on the screen. In order to make your site truly accessible, consider the following design factors. 

  • Alternative text for images – Provide meaningful alternative text for images so that the user can access the full content of your site.
  • Video descriptions – A blind person may listen to the audio of a video on your site but still miss important information conveyed only in the imagery. Include descriptions if needed to provide the full context of the video.
  • Keyboard enabled navigation – Clickable elements on the page must also be keyboard focusable.
  • Page feedback – When a site user completes a task on the page, they’ll need audible feedback.
  • Consistent site hierarchy – Make sure headings and subheadings on the page are properly tagged since screen readers will use that hierarchy.
  • Proper labels – Make sure page widgets have an ARIA label to create a logical connection between the element and its description.

The Beauty of Universal Design

There’s a concept in architecture called accessibility first design or universal design, and it’s an elegant and effective way to approach the question. Don’t design for the fully-abled and then add accommodations. Start by creating a design that is optimized for people with disabilities, and you’ll find that you’ve created something that is not only compliant but also more elegant and beautiful. Instead of stairs in front and a ramp in the back, instead of cramped bathrooms with one large stall, what if graceful, open, flowing floorplans dominated our communities?

Consider what we call the curb-cut effect. Thanks to the ADA, we’ve made our sidewalks wheelchair accessible by replacing curbs with ramps at crossings. It turns out, this doesn’t just benefit folks with disabilities. People pushing strollers, people pulling shopping carts, people on bicycles or skates, and older people, all suddenly found our city sidewalks to be more user-friendly. More user-friendly walkways means more pedestrians and cyclists, which actually benefits local businesses because they get more traffic! One simple change that had to be mandated by law because everyone just thought of it as an inconvenient expense had a surprising, positive ripple effect.

We can apply these same design principles to software and website design, and we’ll increase usability and customer satisfaction for everyone in the process.

Bearded man in a wheelchair doing overhead press with barbellting

Disability as a Superpower

Like most sighted people, I have a hard time imagining navigating the world without vision. But a few months ago, I injured my back and had to wear a very restrictive back brace for a couple of months. It was interesting and humbling to try to do basic tasks when I couldn’t bend over! Unloading the dishwasher was a near impossibility, and I had to do squats to put a bowl of cat food on the floor. It was an eye-opening experience and one that made me more aware of how the design of everyday things like kitchen appliances can improve or frustrate our daily lives.

We know that diverse teams make better software, and diversity doesn’t just mean people with different ethnicities. Disabled people are very underrepresented in tech careers, and that’s a problem. Our teams lack the lived experience of people with disabilities, which limits our perspective and our creativity. Too many people think of accommodating disabled employees as an expense. They don’t have recruiting and retention policies to make themselves more attractive to teammates with disabilities. Yet, companies that do often see better bottom-line results.

I read the comment below on a discussion board  from a blind software engineer to someone who was losing their sight , and I think it’s just a beautiful and compelling statement about why we should consider disability as a super-power instead of a limitation in our teams and organizations:

“Eventually, the better you get with your tools, you’ll find you have some superpowers over your sighted peers. For example, as you get better with a screen reader, you’ll be bumping the speech rate up to 1.75-2X normal speech. You’ll be the only one who can understand your screen reader. You’ll become the fastest and most proficient proof reader on your team. Typos will be easily spotted as they just won’t “sound right.” It will be like listening to a familiar song and then hitting an off note in the melody. And this includes code. Also, because code is no longer represented visually as blocks, you’ll find you’re building an increasingly detailed memory model of your code. Sighted people do this, too, but they tend to visualize in their mind. When you abandon this two-dimensional representation, your non-visual mental map suffers no spatial limits. You’ll be amazed how good your memory will get without the crutch of sight.” 

For a complete overview of accessibility in design, visit the WCAG 2 Overview website. 

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