The web is bigger, more important and more diverse today than ever before, but millions of people with disabilities still struggle to access crucial information and services online. The last year has created a reckoning in many companies that accessibility simply hasn't been prioritized, and the consequences are real for both users and businesses.
“The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” - Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and Inventor of the World Wide Web
For many that means there's nowhere to go but up — and fast. In just a few months, your organization can be well on its way to creating a better customer experience not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone: customers, clients, and employees.
"There is an exciting movement towards empathy and understanding about what people with disabilities need when they use websites, mobile apps, or any other digital properties that we all use. We haven't really been considering people's disabilities as much as we could have or should have in the past, but that really is changing." - Jen Chadwick, Lead Digital Accessibility Strategist, Siteimprove
Pressure to change has come from several directions. Of course, a year of increased reliance on digital services has highlighted many shortcomings, but accessibility efforts have been growing more visible in recent years, increasingly being seen as part of ordinary best design practices rather than a separate domain.
Understanding that accessibility is a core element and not a feature to be added later is one lesson, and a part of that is recognizing the fundamental diversity of the group's accessible design is meant to serve.
"Proactive inclusion is the driving force behind our product inclusion philosophy and one of the key tenets of our overall Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion strategy. By proactively designing accessibility and inclusion into the earliest stages of our development flow, we ensure that the result is delivered in a manner that reinforces our brand philosophy." - Helen Schroeder, Manager - UX Design & Accessibility, Air Miles
There are numerous benefits to making accessibility central to your organization beyond bringing in new customers and streamlining the existing experience.
Accessible design is often just better design — you may find that including it early simply leads to a superior product. It also simplifies the development roadmap as there is far less remediation for accessibility-related issues, which if not addressed early tend to require more than surface-level changes. Collaboration between groups can improve as well since accessibility is by definition something that cuts across multiple disciplines. It falls under the same heading as standards and design source of truth; by communicating something better, everyone's work is eased and improved.
“Accessibility can be viewed from the lens of design thinking. Start with empathy, build user personas, and visit your user experience from the perspective of each of those personas. This results in an accessible outcome ensuring it is achieved throughout the entire pipeline and not just in the end.” - Eric Kim, Co-Founder, Quantum Mob.
Like many big changes, a shift towards accessible design and development can be a bit hard to get started. The first step really has to come from leadership, for instance making a simple, direct and public commitment to accessibility so that anyone working on it at a lower level knows the company has their back. From there accessibility efforts should be given actual budgets and staff, to avoid the possibility of the work taking a back seat to other responsibilities.
Actual implementation starts with understanding the basic needs, which (roughly summarizing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) are that all content should be:
Perceivable (the content can be seen by both systems, such as screen readers, and people)
Operable (it can be interacted with by a range of methods, from cursors to keyboards to other peripherals)
Understandable (documentation, instructions, error messages and the like are available alongside main content)
Robust (works on a variety of platforms, from desktop PCs to mobile to VR/XR systems)
Those principles inform the policies governing accessible content, but there are actual requirements and goals to consider as well. While each organization will have their own particular accessibility journey to navigate, it's important to make a few strong decisions at the start.
First, what level of accessibility within the WCAG standard can you commit to? Levels A, AA and/or AAA at WCAG 2.1? This should be decided at the start, as it informs the budget, team, and general resource commitment required to move forward.
Second, how do your users' expectations and stakeholder expectations compare? It's important to be sure that what the company wants to get done is in alignment with what users would like to have it do.
Third, do you want to incorporate accessibility into other areas of the organization, like hiring, documentation, and contracts? This is over and above product design and development but is increasingly important to companies making this push.
Of course, even making these decisions may not be easy, which is why expert groups and consultants are incredibly valuable in this space. The guidelines themselves are changing constantly through discussion and consensus, and groups representing people with disabilities are speaking and being heard more, leading to more diversity in the movement.
A recent study by the Baltimore Post Examiner found that 92% of companies expect their agency to handle website accessibility compliance. A similar percentage of brands also expected agencies to inform them of their responsibility, legal processes, and repercussions of following specific accessibility guidelines.
To help organizations understand the importance of championing web accessibility and digital inclusion at their organization, Quantum Mob recently organized a webinar with key industry leaders from Air Miles and Siteimprove. You can get the recording of the panel from here.
If you have any questions after reading this article or you're curious to understand where your brand stands in terms of digital accessibility, feel free to reach out to us at [email protected] for a complimentary digital insights report of your website in association with Siteimprove.
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