Why you need to be aware of accessibility in your digital platforms
“Should we follow accessibility guidelines in our project? Well, the delivery date is coming up and we’ve got loads of things to do… So at the end, if we have time, we will look into it.”
If you are a developer, project manager or hold any other position related to project development, I am sure you have heard this kind of statement about accessibility before. It is a common discussion in every front-end project. But let me give you a spoiler: you are not going to have time.
In the software development world, the tangible result is usually prioritised over following up good practices in the development process. The attitude is this: first, achieve the use cases you need for different users, and then, if you have more time, develop extra features. Finally, if there is even more time available, you might consider carrying out tests, and only then consider accessibility…
This is usually an unfortunate reality of front-end software development that should be challenged. The main problem that needs solving is not how to prioritise these tasks, it is to treat accessibility and testing as an intrinsic part of the development process. They must all be considered together.
The first step is to understand how accessibility is implemented in practice – here we find a difference between the public and private sectors. On the one hand, projects focused on the public sector tend to have lengthier time frames, and must meet accessibility requirements that are regulated by law. (This being said, you may or may not be surprised to hear that the way accessibility is treated in public sector projects frequently leaves much to be desired…) On the other hand, projects in the private sector are usually conducted within far shorter development cycles so accessibility terms are the last thing to be considered.
Barriers in numbers: the myth of the minority user
At first thought, we might relate accessibility as a concept with people who have mobility issues or need helpers to carry out their daily activities. However, this term is much bigger than physically dependent people.
Looking specifically at accessibility in digital platforms and websites, there are several ways in which they can be inaccessible to people with disabilities, whether this is auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech or visual issues.
Some real examples of how these disabilities can be a barrier in the use of a digital platform are: media players without captions, complex page navigation, no full keyboard support, contact or support systems only being available through voice interaction, missing non-visual feeds for screen reader, colour combinations and so on.
So why does this matter?
A growing demographic
According to the World Health Organization, 15% of the world’s population experiences some form of disability. This is over one billion people globally, or one in seven of us. The International Telecommunication Union estimates that around 54% of the global population has access to the internet. If we merge both figures, we find that around 8% of people connected to the internet around the world experience some form of disability.
However, this is just the beginning. Internet connection and technology usage is growing around the world. This, along with an increase in the average age of people in developed countries accessing the internet, means that there will be ever increasing numbers of internet users with some kind of impairment.
There are several key ways of integrating accessibility in digital platforms. Many can be added easily but others require a bit more thought to implement. One of the most important sets of guidelines is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed as part of the Web Accessibility Initiative from the World Wide Web Consortium. This sets out a series of success criteria for implementing accessibility in websites for the most common disabilities, and ranks conformance from A (the worst) to AAA (the best). It is a widely accepted standard, and for this reason, is used to define the accessibility level required in software projects for both the public and private sectors.
The first place where you should sow the accessibility seed in your project is within development and technical teams. In the same way knowledge is needed of specific technologies, development languages and tools, expertise in accessibility is a must for anyone working in digital platforms, websites and front-end projects.
A way of promoting this throughout your teams is to provide access to courses and training around accessibility principles, and leaving designated time for developers to invest in it. This results in teams having accessibility concerns at the forefront of their minds, and who have at least a basic appreciation of how to follow guidelines and develop accessibility-friendly digital platforms. Ultimately, it results in a team with knowledge of better practices in software development.
A holistic view
Design teams are also an important link in the accessibility chain. They design the dreams that developers make a reality, so mock-ups and sketches need to be created under accessibility principles. These guidelines should always be prioritised at the design stage, even if it means altering the overall vision. If development teams have knowledge of accessibility principles but the design teams sketch out designs with hard interactions and layouts, with overlapping panels which complicate keyboard navigation, inappropriate font sizes or colours without contrasts, developers can’t do much about it. It’s therefore crucial for designers to have knowledge of accessibility concerns and prioritise this over the coolest designs.
Last but not least, it’s important to spread the word about accessibility throughout the wider company as a whole. It is as important for individuals, teams and leaders in your organisation to have this knowledge as it is to spread it.
Thinking about job offers, something I have always puzzled over is how they require a pretty extensive knowledge of development languages, technologies and tests tools, yet most don’t require any awareness level of or experience working with accessibility principles. This is a surprise considering that knowing how to develop a good digital platform in terms of accessibility is a far more useful skill for any front-end position than knowing a host of different technologies that will probably never be put to use.
The long story short
Trying to make life easier for people with disabilities is a growing trend – or at least something that we as a society are becoming more aware of. The percentage of the world’s population with some kind of disability – already high – will only increase in the years to come. This is more than enough justification for thinking about this sector of the population, the ways in which they may have barriers to digital inclusion, and taking action on the matter.
Everybody involved in software engineering and development must contribute to this mission, because there is still a lot of work to do. The responsibility for making an accessibility-friendly World Wide Web is held jointly by everyone who works in the software world. But too often, accessibility concerns fall by the wayside in the midst of time and budget constraints. We therefore need to raise awareness about the fundamental importance of these goals.
So, do you still think accessibility is the last thing to be aware of in the development of your digital platform?