Accessibility–what is it and why does it matter?

Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash

Web accessibility is the design of software for a wide range of people and abilities. Accessible design is inclusive of disability and allows people with sight, hearing, cognitive, and/or physical disabilities to use the website.

How a user interacts with the products we develop is a part of the development process, but a key element of success is the ability to develop a product that is accessible to the largest group of users. A company may have its interpretation of accessibility, depending on the product, the user experience, or even feedback from the clients, but there are legal guidelines that we must follow to protect the user experience.

Break it down, make it accessible
We must take accessibility into consideration throughout the design process, including the way we create content and how we develop our products. Functional elements must support accessibility; for example, if you want your user to proceed through a site by clicking on a blue button, then you are assuming that they can see the color blue. But what if they can’t? Their user experience stops there.

What if a crucial element of the site depends on an auditory interaction? If the user is unable to hear then the page is not accessible. We must take into consideration visual and auditory disabilities, cognitive and neurological, and physical/motor disabilities when we design and develop any site or digital product. “The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”–Tim Berners-Lee

A look back while we move forward

Accessibility–How did we end up here?
Former President Nixon signed The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to eliminate “discrimination based on disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment, and the employment practices of federal contractors.” This law put accessibility at the forefront of the national audience.

It became a right for people with disabilities to have access to resources. This law was followed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that “prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.”

These groundbreaking laws created a better society by developing a deeper understanding of accessibility. As the world and technology advance, it is not only a natural progression but a lawful one, that we continue to make public services accessible. It’s also the right thing to do.

The next step in accessibility took place with the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium, and is referred to as the WAI (the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative). This is where we see a momentous step towards equality in making the digital world accessible. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was finally amended to “require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities.”

We refer to this amendment as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act which has become the foundation for the guidelines of accessibility. In 2018 at the W3C, additional concerns and accessibility issues were discussed as we learn more about how users with disabilities interact with the web. These revisions are known as W3C WCAG 2.1.

Being accessible
There are four principles of web accessibility: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. This is how to present information to the user, and how they interact with the information on the screen. Accessibility is not only in terms of how a user interacts with a web page but also in the way we develop specific hardware and software to assist people with disabilities.

Principle One — Perceivable
Design for your user, all interface components must be designed with the end-user in mind in a way that they can perceive it. The use of colors, contrasts, the composition of design elements, and other visual elements must create meaning that can be interpreted by everyone.

Principle Two — Operable
Web pages should support navigation options that allow all users to interact with the software, such as keyboard navigation. We must provide a way to navigate the functions of the site for those with physical and cognitive disabilities.

Principle Three — Understandable
The information must be presented in a way that users can understand. Avoid technical terms and industry jargon. The user should be able to complete a process and recall how they moved throughout the process. Design stepped processes so users can complete them in a minimum number of steps.

Principle Four — Robust
The site should be able to function with assistive technologies to support people with disabilities. Ultimately, anywhere this information is viewed, users should be able to interpret and use the information in the same way. Ensure the product is available on various devices such as mobile and desktop and works with assistive technologies.

The three pillars of web accessibility

Content
We’ve all heard the saying “Content is King”. This was said by none other than Bill Gates as part of an essay he wrote in 1996. We really can’t speak about accessibility without mentioning content, it plays an integral part of any accessibility plan and includes the narrative, the copy, and other contextual elements.

Depending on the size of the organization, the creation of content falls on the shoulders of copywriters, the marketing department, content strategists, research specialists, or a combination of these teams or departments. The copy is one of the key components in content, it follows carefully defined guidelines that are created to convey a clear message.

The brand, theme, and style make up the visual content and also play an extremely important role in creating a successful brand for the organization. The copy is supported by visual elements in creating the overarching message that the organization wants to present.

In most organizations, the content department will also include research specialists. The research specialist plays a vital role in pointing out specific areas of the content that needs revisions. They do this by conducting very detailed research and analysis of the data that makes up the content.

The content team will normally always refer to the WCAG content accessibility guidelines as their “source of truth”. The guidelines cover a variety of different items, including guidance on meaning, content, language, comprehension, etc.

Design
When we’re talking about design, we mean the overall look of all the UI elements and navigation. Depending on the size of the organization the UX Design team can comprise UX/UI designers, information designers, interaction designers, or a combination of these.

Good design does not only look good, but it also works seamlessly, combining the four principles of accessibility (Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust). A great design team understands this and knows that content creators, designers, and developers need to work together to create a well-understood story.

For navigation and information flow to work, the design needs to be clear and intuitive, benefitting the user, particularly users with accessibility considerations. This is especially true of large systems like financial technology such as the technology we create, and other projects that need complex information processing.

Development
After all of the components have been taken into account with accessibility in mind, development teams can build a product that can support all users. Using the ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) tools the project will be created with accessibility in mind.

The highest level of success can be seen when both the front-end and back-end teams are well-trained in their ability to create accessibility for their users. Employing ARIA methods, team members can ensure they provide the most accessible method of interacting with their site.

Conclusion
By making our products more accessible, we not only fulfill the goal of reaching a wider audience, but we create a space that treats people with respect. Accessibility in the digital world strengthens connectivity, and connectivity can be assumed as the reason for the creation of the web.

Software engineer at Polar Notion