Why is web accessibility important?

Blog published on Texthelp website on 2nd March 2020

So much has changed in the last two decades. In fact so much has Hand holding an iphone showing the home screenchanged in the last two years. As a blind person I’m just one example of how tech has helped improve the life choices for people with disabilities. We now have all the power of computers with us wherever we go – and with a range of sensors such as camera, GPS, accelerometer and compass etc that, when perhaps one or more of your own senses don’t work, can be incredibly empowering. Whereas a disabled person used to have to purchase expensive (and often relatively limited) devices, they can often now use mainstream gadgets such as a smartphone that have all the necessary accessibility features built-in and which offer thousands of apps that do the same functions for a fraction of the price. 

As a blind person I used to need a talking GPS device (£750), a talking notetaker (£1500), a talking barcode scanner (£150) and many, many more specialist devices – all that had to be carried around in a backpack and each with their own charger etc – whereas now I have all that functionality and an awful lot more in one device. That same device is also almost infinitely expandable with each new app or service that comes along.

All this excellent tech, however, can only enable access to the digital world for people with disabilities if that world makes certain allowances. That’s where the need – no, the imperative - for digital accessibility comes in.

The low-down on accessibility

Digital accessibility has two main aspects; the accessibility, affordability and functionality of physical devices (specialist or mainstream) and the accessibility of services (websites and apps etc) that we access using those gadgets. OK – so ‘Digital’ probably only means the latter, but the former is so inextricably involved that we need to consider both. 

The accessibility of devices has transformed in recent years – driven in large part by Apple. Apple has lead the way and shamed or energised others to follow. Disabled people are using their smartphones to aid mobility, manage their health, interact with colleagues, friends and society, play an active part in commerce and also have a lot of fun. The accessibility of the Mac and I-devices has ‘mainstreamed’ inclusion and, because of its influence on Android and other manufacturers, has meant that inclusion is now more affordable than ever before and we have largely seen the end of expensive, specialist, devices.

The accessibility of these devices has also impacted that second area of web and app accessibility. Apple’s developer tools have been designed such that you actually have to break accessibility in your app. Thus there are tens of thousands of apps to choose from Amazon Echothat are now accessible – often replacing hard or impossible to use websites that haven’t been built with the benefit of such an environment. This has had a massive impact on choice for disabled people. As a blind person I would always first reach for an app which is a much more accessible, cleaner and more distilled user experience. Actually I would first reach for Alexa or Siri to see if the information or interaction I want can be done in a few seconds flat. If it works then this is a result. If it doesn’t then I have only wasted seconds before firing up the app.

One reason why the smartphone (and increasingly, the smartspeaker) is so empowering is that it enables people with disabilities to avoid using the internet. Despite the carrots and the sticks associated with making your website accessible, the internet is still a horribly inhospitable place for people with disabilities. If a virtual assistant or inclusive app can come up with the goods then a frustrating exploration of a much more complex – and almost invariably less accessible – web-based alternative will be avoided like the plague.

Mainstreaming accessibility

The concept of digital accessibility is now not only more mainstream an issue – it is, in fact, a purely mainstream issue.

We’re living in the age of extreme computing. Let’s think about how we use computers today. In this mobile-first world many of us are interacting with devices in ways that are far removed from the conventional set-up of your office or home where you sat in your comfortable chair, had your preferred keyboard, mouse and screen and ultimate control over your environment. If the sun was too bright or too dull, for example, you’d pull the blind or turn on the lights. 

Now, whether it’s juggling a phone one-handed as you weave down the street coffee in-hand, desperately trying to finish off that text or transaction before you reach the bottom of the escalator, or tilting and shading your phone under the glare of the midday sun, you’re involved in extreme computing – and extreme computing needs inclusive design.

The challenge is to optimise for every situation.

That sounds like a tough challenge - optimising your devices (if you’re a device manufacturer) or your content and functionality (if you create websites or apps) for everyone and every situation. Well the accessibility guidelines are actually meant to do just that. In the case of websites or apps, for example, you’re designing to optimise for the needs of people who may have a vision, motor or learning impairment for example.

If you have no disability but you are using your phone one-handed on the move then you actually do have a temporary impairment that is identical to someone who has a motor difficulty 24-7. It’s true. You need exactly the same design considerations (good sized tappable areas separated by enough white space) as is needed by someone with Parkinson’s or a tremor.

If you or someone you know has Parkinson's, watch our Tech tips to help people with Parkinsons webinar recording 

In the same way, if you are trying to find out some information or purchase a product online very quickly in the few seconds you have available as you stand on that escalator, then you require that the site or app you are using has extreme usability to be able to complete it in the time you have available. This extreme usability is needed by someone with a learning difficulty to be able to successfully complete it regardless of how much time they have. Exactly the same requirements – and accessibility, or inclusive design, will help to achieve it.

You get the idea. Similarly good colour contrast and choice of font will help those with small screens on a sunny day just the same as it will help those with a vision impairment regardless of their screen size.

Thus accessibility – with its historical connotations of being solely for the disabled user, requiring extra budget and effort and, being a ‘bolt-on’ often being dropped off when push comes to shove – should probably now be replaced with the idea of ‘Inclusive design’. Inclusive design is for every user and, as such, is factored in from the very start of any project and informs every decision along the way.

How to move the accessibility needle

Hopefully, at this point, we all agree that digital accessibility is essential to make products and services fit for purpose in this mobile-first world – quite apart from it being an essential component of the daily digital lives of people with disabilities.

AbilityNet offers a wide range of digital accessibility products and resources 

It's been a legal requirement to have an accessible website since 2003 and yet we estimate that still 90%+ of websites in the UK don't even meet a level of WCAG single-A compliance - let alone AA which is arguably the legal requirement.

I believe that the single most impactful development that will see a seismic shift in accessibility is for government to actually enforce the law. This sounds odd, but in an open letter to the government I explain and I’ll summarise it here.

You can barely leave your car one minute over time without getting a parking ticket, or speed on the highway without seeing a camera-flash, but where are the government’s wardens of the internet? The law on accessibility matters too - arguably much more so for those disabled users directly impacted and indeed for our digital economy more widely. Because, what’s good for someone with a visual impairment is good for someone using a small screen etc, etc (you're all experts on this now).

While it can take considerable time and expertise to ensure a website is compliant, it's incredibly simple to check AA-level compliance (the legal minimum) with an automated checking tool. It would only take a very small team to enforce.

So why leave it to disabled individuals to enforce the law? That seems wrong to me. One reason is that for the longest time the government probably felt that their own house wasn't sufficiently in order. They were doing the equivalent of speeding or parking on double-yellow lines themselves. But now gov.uk is pretty accessible and so I say that now is the time. Let’s get this initiative underway and get companies to sit up and take note. 

Whilst a government department would not want to name and shame, organisations such as the RNIB or indeed ourselves at AbilityNet may well wish to put in a frequent FOI (freedom of information) request and thus the names of organisations could well be made public. I believe the financial and brand incentives would see a paradigm change in what has been an incredibly slow journey to accessibility.

That’s my take-away and you can take it or leave it. Other countries choose to be proactive and are seeing a significant shift towards a more digitally-inclusive world for everyone. 

Find out about accessibility and inclusive design in other countries in the TechShare Pro 'Carrots and Sticks: A global perspective' session

I hope you decide to champion accessibility because it’s the right thing to do and not out of fear of the possible brand or legal consequences – but, as a blind person driven to despair by the digital world on a daily basis, I really don’t mind either way.

Happy, inclusive digital creation.

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