When we think of accessibility, we often think of edge cases or obnoxious advocates like me who keep pushing designers and developers to make changes that seem insignificant.
That perception, however, couldn’t be more wrong. Read on to learn how it isn’t just wrong, but also incredibly risky, and may be directly stunting your success.
Web, mobile, and digital application accessibility refers to whether or not your system/experience can be used by anyone, regardless of whether they require assistive tech or are otherwise different in how they use their minds, bodies, or eyes from what is considered “normal.”
This sounds complicated, but it actually isn't. The W3C (Worldwide Web Consortium) provides an excellent list of guidelines, referred to as WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). WCAG is based on the concept that all web content should follow four principles, known by the acronym POUR. These stand for perceivable (the user can tell that there is something available to them), operable (the user can click on, open, or otherwise engage with the content as expected), understandable (the user is not confused y the content), and robust (the system adapts smoothly to whatever device is accessing it).
At the beginning of 2019, I spent a significant chunk of my free time preparing for the IAAP (International Association of Accessibility Professionals) certification exams to become a Certified Professional in Web Accessibility, and dove deep into the guidelines that support POUR.
I cared and invested in this effort, because
- I’ve been advocating for digital accessibility and universal inclusion for decades now,
- My mother is legally blind and relies on systems to respect the user’s preferences for reduced motion, high contrast, increased fonts, or even custom fonts,
- Even as someone whose entire career has been in tech, I have, on and off, required assistive tech due to low vision and mobility impairment resulting from too much data entry in the late 1990s.
In the process, I discovered that there was a lot I didn’t know, but that I should have. I discovered that we cannot have truly strong user experiences, and customer journeys, without accessible products.
You care because
Providing inclusive and accessible experiences is an excellent goal. It can, however, be extremely difficult to justify the budget, time, and often even retraining required to be truly accessible based on ideals. When it comes to planning your level of investment, there are also hard numbers worth knowing:
Your Market: think about 1 in 5, and growing
Again, we often think of accessibility as an edge case. In truth, however, the United States Census Bureau estimated approximately 20% of our population has some form of disability — in 2010! Given our aging population, those numbers have surely been rising since then. In 2017, the NCHS reported that approximately 10% of adult Americans have some form of vision loss.
One in five people is a massive market share. This number will be even higher, statistically, if your user-base is older.
And another thing to consider:
Far more people benefit from accessible digital experiences than those traditionally considered disabled.
- Think about a parent holding a baby while working: she is likely one-handed, and may now be relying on her tab key instead of her mouse to navigate a site, or dependent on large clickable areas on her mobile app because she is now clumsy while holding the phone;
- Think about when your partner has a repetitive stress injury flareup and now has to use dictation to get around a digital system;
- Or when you have an ear infection and cannot hear;
- Or are extremely ill but still trying to take care of finances on your computer; your mind isn’t sound enough to operate a vehicle, but you still need to get through something complicated without making an error because the interface doesn’t make sense.
All of these people are in your life every day, all the time. They might even be you. They are individuals in your potential market and are directly impacted by how accessible your product actually is, but they are not part of the statistics cited above.
If you are looking for inspiration about how to think of accessible experiences for this expended market, Toyota put together a beautiful video about accessibility and its overall market and user-base.
Risk of a Lawsuit
Lawsuits are increasing at a rapid pace, and unless your site is behind a private, exclusive intranet, your chances of being targeted are increasing each year. In 2018, the number of lawsuits against websites for accessibility causes nearly tripled the record set in 2017; already, the expectation is that this number will triple again in 2019. ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) suits, in general, have risen steadily over the past decade and reached over 10,000 in 2018.
While the relevance of existing private-sector accessibility laws is still being interpreted by courts, Section 508 is quite clear: any procurement funds used for government projects must be accessible (on the web, this typically means conforming to WCAG 2.0 AA or higher). The ADA is more relevant to most private-sector digital spaces: any place of public accommodation (such as a restaurant, a hotel, a conference center), must be accessible. Some suits are successful in arguing that this applies to the web as well (see the stories of Beyonce and Dominos).
Even if you think you might win the lawsuit, the suit itself will be both expensive, time-consuming, and, ultimately, bad press.
What Must Be Considered?
When thinking about accessibility, we aren’t simply thinking about blind users and screen readers, or deaf users who rely on captions and transcripts. These represent important demographics, as they are made up of individuals who are significantly empowered by accessible digital spaces. The spectrum of disabilities, however, is far more complex and includes:
- Cognitive disabilities, by far the most common disability, include individuals with learning disorders, ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and more. These individuals are impacted if your site uses obscure language, there is too much distracting motion on the screen that cannot be paused, or the site is otherwise difficult to understand or makes it hard to focus.
- Motor disabilities include individuals without full control of their body movements (typically hands have the most significance for digital experiences, but this is changing as technology becomes more immersive). People who fit this category might have repetitive stress injury, arthritis, loss of limbs, broken limbs, be undergoing chemotherapy and experiencing stiff fingers, etc.
- Low vision includes individuals who can see, but not well. This is the category my mom falls into, and that I occasionally skirt. We have to make use of zoom controls, text-to-speech technology such as screen readers, and sometimes more dramatic controls such as high contrast or other color inversions. This category also includes a rapidly growing population: those with older eyes trying to read small fonts. Also impacted to some degree: anyone using a device that auto-adjusts to high contrast mode when in bright sunlight.
- Color-blindness. Around 8% of men and 1% of women are colorblind. These individuals are not in national disability statistics. These people include my husband. More likely than not, these people include a few of the individuals reading this blog post.
What can you do?
If you have an existing system, your first step will be an audit and remediation. An accessibility audit will typically look something like the following, depending on your system and needs:
- Automated code testing for violations that can be determined by algorithms (about 30% of considerations);
- Review of colors and font sizes for readability, as well as recommendations for minor adjustments to correct;
- Work through the site and systems using the keyboard only to verify proper behaviors;
- Work through the site and systems with a screen reader to verify proper behaviors;
- Work through the site and systems with switch controls to verify proper behaviors;
- Evaluation of content editing techniques that might cause accessibility violations, and recommendations to prevent unintentional issues.
This process results in a list of issues for remediation, which are prioritized by severity. Issues that entirely block a specific group's access to your system will be critical, while those that are annoyances but not blockers will be minor. Once those tickets have been resolved, a second round audit should be run in order to identify any issues that were created when remediating the first set, or any issues that couldn’t be uncovered due to lack of access in the first round.
We also urge you to consider doing real-user testing with individuals who have a broad range of disabilities (cognitive, vision, motor). This real-user testing should not be done until after both rounds of remediation, otherwise, it will be wasted time. In these real-user tests, you are looking for the issues no one else could possibly find.
You will also want to fill out the VPAT form (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template), and make it available from your site or app. The VPAT is used to indicate your level of WCAG conformance, as well as indicate your roadmap for future accessibility improvements. It is often required by government procurement departments to prove that your system meets baseline accessibility guidelines.
Keep in mind that your overall accessibility is only as good as your integrations, as well, so you’ll want to look carefully at any vendors upon which you rely.
If you are starting fresh with a request for proposals (RFP) or new discovery process, require conformance to WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines in your RFP and contracts from the outset. Require it, and don’t consider any vendor that does not take this seriously.
If you are looking for guidance or assistance, we would be honored to help you on your journey towards accessibility. Contact us to find out how we can help.