17th May 2018 is the 7th annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), raising awareness of the impact that poor web accessibility can have on those affected. However, web accessibility is often treated as an afterthought rather than an industry standard.
Accessibility is about making sure your service can be used by as many people as possible. In the UK, 1 in 5 people have a disability - this could be visual, hearing, motor or cognitive (affecting memory and processing)1. Furthermore, an estimated 253 million people worldwide live with vision impairment: 36 million are blind and 217 million have moderate to severe vision impairment2. For a closer look at how accessibility can affect these users, try navigating your favourite websites using only a keyboard and you’ll soon spot issues from getting stuck in a loop to not being able to access content or functionality at all.
As creators of online experiences, we need to think about how users might access and use our services before we start designing or building anything. But who is responsible for accessibility? Can a website be both accessible and innovative? And why can’t we just rely on assistive technology such screen readers? Here’s a quick run through the current state of accessibility and what we need to do take it into the future.
Who is responsible for accessibility?
Last year, we built a framework for 58 club websites for the English Football League, all while ensuring the sites were AA compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The further we progressed with accessibility in the web build, the more we saw just how important these measures can be, from getting the colour contrast right so colour-blind users can read coloured text or headings, to streamlining our Information Architecture so physically impaired users don’t have to scroll or click for too long to find content.
We quickly discovered over the course of the project that it’s everyone's responsibility to ensure the end product is accessible for everyone. Whether it’s a Creative looking out for contrast ratios or a Developer coding alt-text for images or a Product/Project Manager making sure technical standards are understood by their developers, we needed to tilt the mentality of web accessibility on its head and share responsibility across the business.
Can a digital experience be both accessible and innovative?
AmazeReaslise Lead UX Consultant, Amrit Bhachu, recently invited David Sloan, UX Research Lead at The Paciello Group, to share his vast experience of web accessibility with our Edinburgh office. The Paciello group are members of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and sit on the W3C Advisory Board. A question David often comes across during his work is: “How do we create digital experiences that are both innovative and accessible?” It’s almost as though the industry is stuck in the mind-set of a) innovation or b) accessibility, when the answer is that accessibility is innovative.
The key to untangling this issue is to realise that accessibility doesn’t just apply to people with disabilities. Neurotypical and able-bodied users often benefit from accessibility improvements as all users have different needs at different times and in different circumstances. For example, if you need to watch a video in a loud and disruptive environment you would usually put captions on, a feature originally made for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Word prediction software was originally designed to help users with physical disabilities increase their typing speed and decrease the number of keystrokes needed to complete a word or a sentence. Speech-generating devices were originally created for users who generally produce speech at a rate that is less than 10% as fast as people who use oral speech3. The ‘skip to content’ link was originally created to allow physically impaired users to skip the navigation of a page completely.
Clearly, anyone who thinks accessibility is somehow incompatible with innovation simply hasn’t been paying attention.
What are our legal responsibilities around accessibility?
The Equality Act 2010 (EQA) was introduced to tackle disability discrimination in the UK. While the EQA does not refer explicitly to website accessibility, it does make it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities. If a disabled user can’t access your digital content, it could be deemed as discrimination and a breach of the law.
“Let the shameful wall of exclusion, finally come tumbling down.” - President George H.W. Bush, July 26th 1990; The signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The EQA applies to anyone providing a service, whether it’s public, private, or voluntary. The consensus by the UK Government has been that the "provision of a service" applies to commercial web services as much as to traditional services. Therefore all digital content must comply with WCAG 2.0 requirements to meet UK government accessibility guidelines.
Over the last few years, AmazeRealise’s clients have begun to request WCAG 2.0 compliance and, from personal experience, this is becoming a common expectation as we move towards being a more accessible country online
Why can’t we just rely on assistive technology e.g. screen readers?
Web Accessibility In Mind (WebAIM), one of the leading providers of web accessibility expertise internationally, have been conducting formal studies to investigate whether disabled users believe that websites are more accessible now than in previous years. Recently, WebAIM published their Screen Reader User Survey (October 2017)4 with 83.4% of the respondents exclusively relying on screen reader audio to navigate the web. At a glance the respondents are divided on whether the web has become more accessible (40.8%) or if there had been no change (40.4%) over the previous year.
However, if you dive further into the report it’s clear that these metrics have been improving year by year:
Which of the following best describes your feelings regarding the accessibility of web content over the previous year?
- Web content has become more accessible: 40.8%
- Web content accessibility has not changed: 40.4%
- Web content has become less accessible: 18.8%
Total responses: 1,741. Copyright © 1999-2018 WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind). All rights reserved.
The key factor of the results is that 85.3% of respondents believe more accessible websites would have a bigger impact to web accessibility than better assistive technology.
Which would have a bigger impact on accessibility?
- Better (more accessible) web sites: 85.3%
- Better assistive technology: 14.7%
Total responses: 1,747. Copyright © 1999-2018 WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind). All rights reserved.
“Over time, more respondents have answered "better websites" to this question […] 75.8% in December 2010, 81.3% in January 2014, and now 85.3% on this survey. This change perhaps reflects improvements to assistive technology. It certainly indicates that users expect site authors to address accessibility issues.”
WEBAIM 2017; Screen Reader User Survey #7 Results
The clear takeaway is that we need to innovate and create a new, better standard for design and builds; a standard that has digital accessibility at its core.
What is the future of accessibility?
More and more countries, particularly in Europe, are harmonising web accessibility standards. It’s up to us who work in the industry to ensure that websites are now meeting those standards. W3C are currently working on WCAG 2.1, which addresses more accessibility requirements for people with cognitive and learning disabilities. WCAG 2.1 is being introduced across Europe and is scheduled for completion in June 20185, and it couldn’t come a moment too soon.
In 2017, 97.1% of disabled adults aged 16 to 24 years in the UK were recent internet users, compared with 99.5% who were not disabled6. Since 2016, the number of disabled adults in the UK who have used the internet in the last 3 months increased by 5% to 9 million in 2017. Now imagine you’ve built a website and you deny those 9 million people access to your services. How does this help you, your business, or your customers?
In short, accessibility is not just the logical thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. Every single person has a fundamental right to access the internet and the information they want or need. And we need to be upright and forthcoming in our efforts to reach out and connect users to the information and services they require.
Get involved with Global Accessibility Awareness Day
17th May 2018 is the 7th annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). GAAD has hosted hundreds of virtual and in-person events to raise awareness and get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion for people with different disabilities. Go ahead and unplug your mouse or surf the web with a screen reader for an hour. We encourage designers, developers, client services, management and everyone else to experience first-hand the impact of digital accessibility.
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2. Bourne RRA, Flaxman SR, et al.; Vision Loss Expert Group. Magnitude, temporal trends, and projections of the global prevalence of blindness and distance and near vision impairment: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Glob Health. 2017 Sep;5(9):e888–97