It’s time for design to be more inclusive, and it starts with accessibility.
We each navigate the world according to our varied skills and cognitive or physical abilities. The same is true online — but designers seldom take into consideration the fifteen percent of people worldwide who have some form of disability. That number will grow as our population ages. We need to shift our mindset so we can start shaping a world that people with varying abilities can navigate easily.
A new mindset eventually becomes standard practice.
If you think that accessible design is an add-on rather than something to be standardized, consider curb cuts. They exist because a group of students with disabilities, who attended the University of California at Berkeley, hacked up curbs one night and built their own ramps. In 1971, the city council agreed to curb cuts on every corner. What followed were curb cuts, ramps, and other accessibility services.
We are still facing the same issue of leaving people out, and that’s taking place online. We have core principles, such as hierarchy, consistency, and feasibility, that we embed in the design process. Why does accessibility usually get left behind? Why are we comfortable leaving so many people out?
I worked in Norway for a few years, and on almost all of the projects in the office, we had some conversation around accessibility. Norway is among one of the only countries in the world, along with Australia, where public digital experiences are regulated: Designing for accessibility is a legislative mandate. When I moved to New York, it became painfully apparent to me that while designing for accessibility certainly exists in the U.S., it’s too often an afterthought.
We talk a lot about creating great user experiences, but I think we are mostly good at creating great able-bodied user experiences.
Here are some common sentiments I’ve experienced in work environments around designing for accessibility, from both colleagues and clients, and top takeaways for turning those challenges into positive change.
“Accessibility — what’s that?”
Designing for accessibility means we’re designing with the goal of including as many people as possible, regardless of their diverse abilities and their primary senses.
Accessibility isn’t something I learned about at design school. It’s not something that’s easy to find on a course curriculum, even at the biggest design schools and professional education services in the U.S.
So how can we collectively get schooled in this important issue if we don’t know it exists?
You might not be able to change a university’s course curriculum (you should definitely try), but you can certainly focus on your current environment and on the people around you. Be an advocate for learning and designing with accessibility in mind in your office or on projects.
“I don’t know where to start?”
There’s actually a lot you can do. Embed accessibility into the mindset of all projects early on. If you’re a project owner, get your team to commit from the beginning. The earlier you take accessibility into account, the easier it will be as you go through the process.
Push your team to learn how they can contribute to a product’s accessibility and develop a framework for thinking about inclusive design. Encourage your colleagues to break their assumptions about how people with disabilities use the web. There is an array of impediments to consider: Speech disabilities impair people’s ability to use voice services, physical disabilities make it difficult to type and click, cognitive disabilities affect how people interact with and process information, and visual disabilities demand a varied presentation of content. That includes everything from enlarging the text size to adding audio descriptions of video.
There’s plenty to learn. Get familiar with the Web Accessibility Initiative, aimed at developing international guidelines and consensus-building. And once you get involved, try to get others involved! Teach a class, or do a talk.
“It’s a small project, so it doesn’t need to be accessible.”
Accessibility is optional, right? Wrong. Regulations surrounding digital products and experiences are currently in a gray area. This makes it very difficult to hold products, services, companies, and designers accountable for not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Just because legislation might not be there — yet — it doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be there.
Inaccessibility is everywhere and we’ve all experienced it in some form or another. Let’s not perpetuate that, but rather be open to the fact that everyone experiences the world in different ways, and we shouldn’t ignore that.
Also, don’t assume that designing for accessibility is more effort than it’s worth. First, it’s not as difficult as you think. Second, it’s just another thing to keep in mind as you go about your work. Third, it’s a team effort, which means you won’t be doing it alone. Go through the Web Content Accessibility guidelines together or check out the quick reference guide. Treat it like a creative brief for making your designs more universal.
“A blind person won’t use my site.”
This is not necessarily true. Just because you can’t imagine doing a task or using a website site with a secondary sense that you’re not used to using, it doesn’t mean that your assumption is right about other people. Our assumptions can mislead us.
“I got no feedback about accessibility in user testing.”
Think about it this way: If you release a digital product that someone can’t even access, how would you ever get their feedback about how inaccessible it is?
It’s easy to empathize with someone in a wheelchair when you’re in a physical space because you see exactly what is inaccessible. But in digital spaces, you don’t see how people are using the site, so it’s harder to visualize who is having difficulty and how.
Instead, do research and design with people who have disabilities. Listen carefully: Hear their stories and try to understand their experiences. Try using assistive technologies. User test with people who depend on non-visual senses.
“It will make my site ugly and boring.”
Accessibility has a stigma: It’s boring, dull, and a hassle. The rules and guidelines are restricting, they stifle innovation, and they don’t foster creativity.
Admittedly, it’s a little more effort. It requires spending more time considering and testing your designs. But don’t forget that you’re spending that time trying to be more inclusive. Just because we have a perception that designing for users with disabilities is daunting and complex, it doesn’t mean it has to be.
When The New York Times redesigned their website, they eliminated their print preview feature, and in the process hindered accessibility for people with disabilities who rely on assistive technology. (The print preview feature lets screen readers see uninterrupted text.) They did an audit and released fixes, including a Skip to Content button that let users navigate to the content quicker — and “skip to text” links within articles so users could also navigate around ads or multimedia content.
It was the difference between people being able to access all the content and barely any. Inclusive design helped them retain readers and get new readers, which guarantees not only more money but more influence. They went one step farther and put up an Accessibility page to help people figure out which options they needed.
“The client didn’t ask for it.”
This is a lazy attitude towards design. A client may not ask for beautiful typographic treatment, but you strive for it anyway. It’s about going beyond the ask, beyond the project, beyond what a client wants or needs, and thinking about your greater responsibility.
Small changes, little assumptions, and cut corners can have big unintended consequences. All it takes to avoid it, is a little forethought.
Inclusivity is a privilege that not everyone has access to, but we can collectively change that.
I’m always looking for ways to improve, so I’d love to hear about challenges you’ve faced and how you’ve brought awareness, created change, been the change in your own organizations/personal work/etc around digital accessibility. Let me know in the comments!
Thanks to Navit Keren for all the collaboration and help and being an accessibility driver internally, and to Nicole Okumu for all the support and push.