How the company behind Yahoo!, AOL and HuffPost is mastering accessibility

Despite the fact that around 10-20% of the population has some form of disability, many businesses still aren’t producing accessible services and content. Less than one percent of company websites are considered accessible under universal guidelines. Yet, the legal requirements for businesses to ensure their services are inclusive is becoming stricter.

A few organisations are leading the way in accessibility. We heard from several of these at AbilityNet’s sold out TechShare Pro 2019 event last month. Verizon Media was noted for a strong approach to ensuring the inclusivity of its websites and apps. These include the brands Yahoo!, AOL and HuffPost.

So, what is Verizon doing to be more accessible? Sam Soloway, the company's accessibility lab manager, inspired us on day two. She shared the company’s attitude and how it works with staff to be accessible for its users and audiences. Colour photo of Sam Soloway from Verizon Media

Why accessible websites and apps are important

Soloway explained: “Every Monday the company has a group of new starters. A tour of our accessibility labs is part of their very first experience of Verizon. “Staff will come to the labs either in person or virtually. We use the tours to set expectations about the company and accessibility.

“Most new hires have not heard the word accessibility," she said. "We tell them that the reason we do this (accessibility) is so that everyone has an equal experience with our websites and apps."

“Over one billion people in the world have some form of disability. So if we want to grow our, what we call, 'daily active users' (DAU) as a percentage, we have to discuss the percentage of the population that is often not discussed (the percentage with disabilities)."

Instead of putting disability into specific categories and talking about the social and medical definitions, Verizon, like other companies are now doing, talks about how to ‘reduce friction’ for all users, including those with disabilities. 

What happens at Verizon Media accessibility labs

Verizon’s accessibility labs, based in New York and Sunnyvale, Silicon Valley, (pictured below) are the cornerstone of the media company’s accessibility approach. The labs offer new and existing staff a place to try out assistive technologies.

Photo of Verizon Media's New York Accessibility Lab Photo of Verizon Media's Sunnyvale Accessibility Lab

“We have industry leading tech labs with a small team of six people (overall). These are used for three main purposes," said Soloway.

  1. Firstly, to educate - so we make sure everybody knows what accessibility is, why it’s important and how to integrate accessibility into everything they do.
  2. The second component is particularly for product teams, that’s those with a development or design focus. They can use the same types of assistive technologies as those with disabilities might be using when they come to our websites and apps.
  3. The third component of our accessibility labs is that we really use them as a showplace. We make sure we bring in users with disabilities to provide feedback on all of our apps and websites. We also invite different companies and advocacy groups to visit.”

How Verizon Media uses assistive technology

Soloway told delegates that assistive technology is used in many aspects of the company’s processes - from ideation to implementation. “And, we make sure that at every stage in the process, accessibility is considered as a beginning idea and not an afterthought.

“Assistive technology is an umbrella term comprised of high tech and low tech," she said. "This could include alternative switch, magnification, captioning, a screen reader or a braille display. And this is all the assistive technology you can find in our lab. We’re making sure that our audiences can use such technology with our websites and apps.”

Accessibility features of websites including HuffPost, AOL and Yahoo!

In their induction, staff are also shown all of the options for accessibility that are built into the average smartphone and computer. This includes features such as speech-to-text and screen magnification.

Soloway talked the audience through some of the main features that Verizon wants all of its apps and websites to offer. She said the list was “by no means everything that we check for when we think about accessibility”.

Main accessibility features on Verizon products:

1 Video Captions

All of Verizon Media’s original video content should, and does, have captions. Yahoo Finance, for example, captions eight hours of live video each day. These can be useful for people who are Deaf or have hearing loss. People without hearing loss are now commonly used to reading captions instead of using sound, either because they prefer to read rather than listen, or because they are in a busy / public environment.

With Verizon’s Video On Demand (VOD), there is also a video player that allows the user to customise captions to change colour, text size and location on screen.

2 Keyboard Support

Soloway said: “If someone is using a keyboard only (and unable to use a mouse of mousepad), whether that be a switch, or a head mouse, or a typical keyboard, we want to make sure they can navigate it on our websites and apps. By just tabbing through pages on your website, or by plugging in a USB keyboard to a phone, you can check if your website and app is conducive to keyboard only usage.

3 High Contrast

Verizon aims to make sure its background ratio is at least 4.5:1 (for people with colour blindness, as well as dyslexia and others). There are various contrast checkers available to test this.

4 Dynamic Text Resizing

If a user wants to zoom in on any Verizon website and apps, they can do that without the content being distorted. This is useful for people who have reduced vision or suffer from eye strain, for example.

5 Labels and Descriptions for screenreader users

For screen readers (used by people who are blind or those with sight loss) developers need to accurately describe items and pictures on a page during the development process. This gives users a more information about what to expect. The information connected to links and buttons e.t.c will be read out by the screenreader. 

Further ways that Verizon Media seeks to work with staff to increase accessibility for users:

  • Offers an accessibility team which supports staff with accessibility work
  • A Slack community of about 1,500 colleagues who regularly share accessibility information and updates
  • Willingness to talk to HR about how to hire people with disabilities or to hire people with accessibility knowledge
  • Open to sharing knowledge about making communications more accessible and marketing more inclusive
  • Events and pop ups to support occasions such as Global Accessibility Awareness Day and UN Day of People with Disabilities
  • Sharing with other companies and listening to different advocacy groups to share new accessibility features and to listen to what they’re looking for in our apps and website
  • Customised workshops and intensive sessions on what accessibility looks like in particular roles. This includes product evaluations and user studies to encourage awareness on designing with everyone in mind
  • User nights - where product teams are paired wih users so they can have a conversation about what their experience is.

Find out more about TechShare Pro 2019 here.