Why is web accessibility important?

(This guest blog originally appeared on texthelp.com as part of their Accessibility Leaders series)

Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion, AbilityNet

So much has changed in the last two decades. In fact so much has changed 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.

With the power of computers all around us wherever we go it can be incredibly empowering when one or more of your own senses don’t work. In the past, I used to need a talking GPS device (£750), a talking notetaker (£1,500), a talking barcode scanner (£150) and many more specialist devices. Whereas now, I have all that functionality and lots more on one device, which is also almost infinitely expandable with each new app or service that comes along.

However, this powerful new tech 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.

The accessibility of devices has transformed in recent years, driven in large part by Apple. The accessible Mac and I-devices have ‘mainstreamed’ inclusion and, because of its influence on other manufacturers, has meant that inclusion is now more affordable than ever before. 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 these devices has also impacted that second area of web and app accessibility. Apple’s developer tools have been designed so that you actually have to break accessibility in your app. Thus there are tens of thousands of accessible apps to choose from – often replacing hard or impossible to use websites that haven’t been built with the benefit of such an environment. As a blind person I always 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.

One reason why the smartphone 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. In this mobile-first world, we are interacting with devices in ways that are far removed from the conventional set-up of your office or home, where you had 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, or as you desperately try 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 or your content and functionality for everyone and every situation. Well the accessibility guidelines are actually meant to do just that – help websites or apps  design to optimise for the needs of people who may have a vision, motor or learning impairment, for example.

However accessibility, with its historical connotations of being solely for the disabled user, should probably now be replaced with the idea of ‘Inclusive design’. Inclusive design is for every user. 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.

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.

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 the government to actually enforce the law. That sounds odd, but I’ll explain.

You can barely leave your car one minute over time without getting a parking ticket, but where are the government 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.

The journey to accessibility in the UK so far has been incredibly slow. Other countries choosing to be proactive are seeing a significant shift towards a more digitally-inclusive world – and the benefits are being noticed by everyone. As a blind person driven to despair by the digital world on a daily basis, I can only hope that you decide to champion accessibility. And not out of fear of the possible brand or legal consequences – but because it’s the right thing to do.

Happy, inclusive digital creation.

If you would like to learn more about what you could do to make your website more accessible, download our practical guide to digital inclusion.

On an orange background a woman is looking at a screen, text says "Texthelp - a quick, practical guide to digital inclusion and accessible information for websites"

About AbilityNet

AbilityNet has been changing lives since 1998. We offer advice, information and expert resources on assistive technologies and mainstream solutions for people with the broadest range of disabilities – as well as workplace and DSA (Disabled Student Allowance) assessments in HE. We also deliver website and mobile accessibility consultancy to hundreds of clients across all sectors.

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