The aim of accessibility is to ensure that as many people as possible can use websites in a way that works for them.
Accessibility and digital inclusion are really broad topics and something I’ve been learning about for the last 18 months or so.
Hopefully, as you’re reading this, I don’t need to convince you of why accessibility is important but some reasons, as well as it being the right thing to do, are:
- the increased market opportunity
- Improved brand reputation
- SEO benefits
- giving a better experience to everyone
There is a clear overlap between UX/usability and accessibility. Making the effort to be inclusive from the outset of the design of a digital product will improve the experience for all users.
Be mindful of the breadth of accessibility
The first step to understanding it is by acknowledging that disability is a spectrum of experiences. It involves not creating barriers for people, including those with physical disabilities, neurodiversity and also those experiencing situational impairments (such as accessing a website while being on a noisy train or holding a baby).
There are 4 main categories of physical disability to be aware of:
There could also be intersections between these and ultimately everyone’s experience of a digital product will be slightly different. People may use assistive technologies and some of these work similarly to search engine bots in the way they read through the DOM of webpages. So using semantic HTML and having clean, well-structured code is crucial, in the same way that it is for search engines to be able to crawl effectively.
Other people may use Adaptive Strategies, such as adjusting platform and browser settings or resizing browser windows. One type of assistive technology or adaptive strategy is not necessarily neatly mapped to just one type of disability.
Familiarise yourself with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines but use them only as guidelines
WCAG are the global rules and standards for accessibility. They are quite dense, detailed and it can be difficult to know where to start with them. These rules are grouped into 4 key areas and there are 3 levels of compliance for each.
I really like the way that Amina Aweis who writes about accessibility for Silktide refers to it by saying:
“The way I interpret WCAG is that the core principles are supposed to help me understand what I need to know and be aware of, but not necessarily how it’s done. It’s a bit like reading the menu in a restaurant – it tells you what’s in the dish and it also alerts you to ingredients that may trigger allergies. However, it’s not necessarily telling me how it’s made from start to finish the way a recipe book would.”
While some argue that accessibility should be treated as a legal requirement similar to privacy, there’s also a risk that by only adhering to WCAG you could reduce the nuance of people’s real-life experiences to checklists and compliance.
The most important thing about digital accessibility is making technology work well for people with disabilities, standards are just one way to help with that. This is why it’s always good to include human, as well as automated, testing if you can.
It can feel overwhelming but don’t let that put you off starting
If you’ve inherited a site where accessibility has never been a consideration and there are multiple issues, it can be daunting to know where to start. It can sometimes feel like pushing a boulder up a hill to have it prioritised by your client or organisation, but like SEO, it is something you can approach incrementally and show the improvements as you go.
Some ideas for initial checks, that I notice quite a lot, are:
- Can you navigate the site without a mouse and is the tabbing order logical? Can you interact with everything with a keyboard in the same way you can with a mouse or are any blocks? This can be an effective way to demonstrate to others how you may be excluding users or forcing them to find a workaround.
- Does audio/video content have closed captions or subtitles and voiceovers? This is to ensure there isn’t meaning lost if someone can’t hear the voiceover or read any text included within videos or images, which is something that happens a lot on social media or on webpages that just have a large infographic image.
92% of mobile users view videos with the sound off, reinforcing the point that accessibility benefits everyone.
- Review colour contrasts, target sizes and text sizes There are lots of great tools and extensions, such as Web AIM to check colour contrast. As a general rule, you should aim for a colour contrast of foreground and background of 4.5:1, a tap target size of at least 45×45 pixels and text shouldn’t be smaller than 16pt. Again these are key design principles that improve page experience for all users.
- Is link text descriptive? This one is to carefully consider the text you hyperlink and whether it makes sense if it was read aloud perhaps without being able to see the context of the page. So rather than ‘here’ or ‘click here’ being the linked text, ‘Read more blog posts’ or ‘Get in touch’ are much clearer on what the expected action is from that link. It also has the benefit of being much easier for search engines to understand.
- Do you have an Accessibility statement? A written commitment to your users is a strong place to start. It can help you to build trust and provide accountability. Writing one is a good prompt to audit a site, identify areas that fall short and set the intention for how you’ll make improvements. See an outline of what to include in accessibility statement for an online business.
These ideas are only scratching the surface and would suggest for further exploration:
- Course: Web Accessibility by Google, Developing with Empathy
- AbilityNet intro to web accessibility and AbilityNet videos
- The a11y project checklist
- GDS Accessibility Blog
- Gareth Ford Williams – Little Book of A11y
- Nightingale Design Research Accessibility page
If you missed the talk, you can watch the session again here: