We all need accessibility. To everything. Really.
It’s below zero here in Wisconsin (USA). It’s gone up to -16ᐤC as I write. And even though our +30 cm of snow has been mostly ploughed off the roads, the hardened, icy remains are very slippery, both for cars and pedestrians.
What if we only cleared off the minimum amount of snow and ice necessary for the average person to get around easily? What if we prioritised a trendy, beautiful, yet still slippery look rather than accepting the ugly snow banks and crunchy sand sprinkled for traction? After all, most of us could handle that. And it would be far cheaper, too.
Over 1 billion people worldwide live with disabilities. This makes them/us the world’s largest minority group. And that doesn’t include those of us who are not defined as disabled but have difficulties with some kind of perception.
Most of us go online more often than we go outside. Hmm. What does that tell us about the importance of web accessibility, of making websites and content as accessible as possible, no matter an individual’s physical and cognitive abilities and how they access the web?
Surely it’s a no-brainer, right?
‘In a 2016 Forrester Total Economic Impact study (PDF) commissioned by Microsoft, only 17% of organizations with accessibility programs classified those programs as “extremely successful.”’Bureau of Internet Accessibility, 2022
So, why is web accessibility so difficult for organisations to implement?
- It is seen as a cost when it’s really an investment in a better website and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) indicators.
- It is seen as a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to reach broader, important, and underserved audiences.
- It is seen as a legal barrier, but it fulfils legal obligations and avoids possible litigation while strengthening outreach and accessibility for all website visitors.
- It is seen as too difficult because websites with poor coding in headings and other areas are hard to make screen-reader compliant; clean coding is user and screen-reader-friendlier, faster, and more functional.
- It is not on people’s radar. There’s a pervasive lack of awareness among authors and creators, which is wrong on too many levels.
Following website accessibility guidelines usually results in cleaner coding, improved website speed and development costs in the long term, and smoother delivery to all visitors. The top two web accessibility challenges—improper contrast and missing alternative text—are among the easiest to solve.
Clear, accessible websites help many visitors who don’t have a diagnosed disability but need larger print or better contrast. Did you misplace your glasses? Do you have a headache or a cold? Perhaps you have incipient cataracts, even if you’re too young for them? As readers and followers, we feel more comfortable visiting an accessible website without understanding why. We simply prefer a website that is easy to read and navigate.
Accessibility helps everyone – past, present, and future
Most of us appreciate closed captioning on TV and at meetings and conferences. The room might be noisy. The speaker might have an unfamiliar accent. We might not be fluent in the speaker’s language. Or maybe we just can’t hear clearly. In those moments, we all appreciate being able to read the text to facilitate our comprehension. Many of us are not aware that real-time screen-projected captioning was championed and implemented by advocates for people with hearing disabilities. Real-time and closed captions and subtitles have advanced more quickly due to efforts by the community of people with hearing disabilities, especially through the work of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) Dynamic Coalition on Access and Disability, the Internet Society Accessibility Standing Group, and the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative.
Good contrast and adequate text font and size on websites help everyone assimilate information more easily. What’s the main point of your website or webpage? Is it immediately accessible? Or does it take an effort to discern the information and intent as the visitor navigates the trendy colours and design?
How about those flashy banners? People with disabilities aren’t the only ones who sometimes find those catchy, dynamic designs make them blink, close their eyes, or worse yet, give them a headache. Think about toning them down.
What about amazing images that don’t quite click without some kind of caption? Perhaps alternative text (alt text) or a visible title would make them more valuable. Alt attributes (coding for alt text) enable screen readers to read the image information for people with visual impairments, low vision, different learning abilities, lack of context, or even just slow-loading images. In the best case, alt text is visible when the cursor hovers over an image.
Descriptive alt text for images is indispensable for anyone using a screen reader. Using ‘Alt-text=null’ coding to skip a description is a quick (lazy) fix when a page must be published right away. But null or missing alt text or AI-generated alt text for the Mona Lisa that says ‘woman’ does not communicate the value of that image. If an image is worth including, it’s worth making accessible, isn’t it? Many websites are now providing informative captions for all readers as a matter of course. The photographer or source will appreciate making their graphic work relevant and understandable even if the viewer doesn’t recognise a photo of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres or Taylor Swift. The best alt text is written by the author of the article or the graphic artist; they know exactly what they want to communicate. A picture isn’t worth 1,000 words to someone who cannot see it.
Inviting someone to your website is like inviting them into your home or office. And no matter the weather, each visitor should be able to navigate your space with ease. Clear away those snow banks (flashy banners). Salt those icy patches (contrast). Check your signposting (alt text).
The WebAIM Million published its 2023 report on the accessibility of the top 1,000,000 home pages, with some excellent analyses and resources, including one of my favourite easy-to-use tools, WAVE. It’s a great place to start.