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Making web accessibility a priority

A11y AllyFor many businesses, the web is the first, primary and possibly only point of contact for customers. As such, the issue of web accessibility standards and compliance is of critical importance. People may think of the internet making information more accessible. But that ultimately depends on the way web content is presented. Unfortunately, many websites and tools are developed with accessibility barriers that present challenges to users with disabilities.

At Kiosk, we take web accessibility seriously. We’re committed to educating ourselves on an ongoing basis about current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as it applies to web content. That way, we can educate our clients and collaborate on websites that are WCAG and ADA compliant. 

As part of those efforts, in March 2021 our production team attended Axe-Con, the largest ever web accessibility conference, organized by digital accessibility consultants Deque. The event drew over 17,000 registrations, making it the largest assembly of accessibility professionals ever.

Over our next few accessibility-themed blog posts, we’ll be sharing information and perspectives around accessibility, some of it provoked by conversations that took place at and around Axe Con. 

Starting here with the basics. 

Web accessibility : a definition

Although accessibility is becoming a more ubiquitous concept in web and digital design, it’s worth giving it a definition for those that aren’t familiar with the term. According to developer resource MDN, accessibility can be defined as follows:

“(Accessibility is) the practice of making your websites usable by as many people as possible. We traditionally think of this as being about people with disabilities, but the practice of making sites accessible also benefits other groups such as those using mobile devices, or those with slow network connections.”

Put another way, it’s about making sure that we don’t exclude anyone from using or deriving value from the things we create. It’s worth noting that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. While it contains no enforceable legal standards for web accessibility, per Deque, “the Department of Justice has stated on numerous occasions that ADA compliance includes access to websites that provide services, public accommodations, and/or other functions already included under the ADA.”

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have been cited by the Department of Justice as acceptable metrics for accessibility, though as the web evolves, accessibility goals become a moving target. Better to be proactive than trying to play catch up.

Why does web accessibility matter?

When talking about the “why” of making websites accessible, the discussion often centers around avoiding the expense of litigation. This is understandable, given high-profile accessibility lawsuits of the last several years, such as one filed against Domino’s Pizza, on the basis that the company’s website and mobile app didn’t work with screen-reading software (which vocalizes visual information on websites), thus discriminating against blind people dependant to screen reading software.

In that case, US Circuit Judge John B. Owens ruled that “the alleged inaccessibility of Domino’s website and app impedes access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises – which are places of public accommodation.”

Being risk-averse isn’t a bad reason to consider accessibility. But there’s an even more important reason: because we as designers and developers can and should care about the people who potentially engage with our work. When accessibility considerations are baked into the planning and development process our designs and products actually improve, thinking more broadly about how they might be used. When you build things that can be used by more people, you end up with more potential customers.

Accessibility is something you bake in, not layer on top

A number of companies have sprouted up that sell accessibility ‘overlays’ or automated compliance services for websites that don’t inherently meet accessibility standards. 

One can find any number of blog posts and articles enumerating the many reasons why these tools don’t work and are fairly universally despised by the folks they’re intended to most help. 

Indeed, disability advocate Sheri Byrne-Haber has predicted that SF Lighthouse for the Blind v. ADP, a class action suit on behalf of San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired advocacy group and two of its employees against payroll processing and HR giant, ADP TotalSource and its parent company Automatic Data Processing, Inc.,  “will be to (accessibility) overlays what the Domino’s case was to general accessibility litigation.”

Clearly, building websites that are accessible is a better, more sustainable and ultimately less costly approach than relying on questionable third party overlays. 

Where do we start?

One of the few certainties in accessible design is that there is no one prescription for “doing it right”. The process for making websites accessible involves a fair amount of good judgement and real-world testing.

A good place to start is in developing empathy for people with disabilities. That really means everyone, at least eventually. As Cindy Li, a well-known designer, author, and speaker once said, “we’re all just temporarily abled.” 

If you have an existing website, one place to start is to try using it in ways that you may not have considered before. A really instructive exercise is to use a screen reader like VoiceOver (Mac) or Narrator (Win 10+) and experience your site from the perspective of someone who is reliant on a screen reader for comprehension. 

You may discover things are read out that were never intended to be read (e.g. lengthy photo file names) or that an “accordian” style FAQ layout, where answers are expandable and collapsible, hides content from the screen reader. Content that’s frequently asked about, no less!

If you’re more technically inclined you can review your site with a robust tool like Axe Dev Tools or others. Keep in mind that many tools will report things as possible issues; it’s important to evaluate the results carefully and determine if there’s really a problem.

And don’t overlook the possibility of getting feedback from real people! You may already have email or other input regarding your site and the accessibility of it. Take the time to understand what’s being said. 

And when should we do it?

The best time to start thinking about accessibility is before anything has been designed or built. The second best time to start thinking about accessibility is right now. 

Interested in working with an agency that’s passionate about accessibility? Get in touch.