How we can make the web an inclusive place

By Jim Rawson on 16th April 2020

I was a bit disappointed to hear that the release of ‘No Time to Die’ has been delayed until November as I have to confess: I’m a bit of a Bond fan.

One of my favourite ingredients in a Bond movie is the appearance of ‘Q’, MI5’s fictional head of Research and Development.

It’s a bit sad really, but I can’t help feeling (probably a little bit too) excited about the arsenal of sexy and preferably deadly tech to be unveiled in Q’s lab and handed over to Bond to run off and play with on his next episode of saving the world in a tuxedo.

I’d like to say working in IT is just like that… I’d like to say we spend all day dreaming up miniaturised spy cams, playing fetch with AI robot dogs and testing firing fountain pens that turn into grappling hooks… but I don’t need to sit a cold war polygraph test for you to know that I’d be lying if I said that!

In truth, web accessibility (the real subject of this article) is probably one of the least sexy areas of technology. It is also in my humble opinion one of the most meaningful and, unlike 007’s gadgets, has long-term purpose and value. Not to mention that its practitioners don’t have to actually risk life and limb to save the world from the bad guys!

So, what is it?

Most people have an idea of what accessibility means in relation to our physical environment –making things available to everyone. Wheelchair ramps, induction hearing loops or the availability of information in braille are all familiar examples of accessibility adjustments in the real world.

The digital world has adjustments that need to be made too – but unless you happen to be a web developer with a specific interest in the subject, or you are someone with a disability who uses computers, smartphones or tablets, you probably won’t know what those adjustments are.

And one person’s idea of ‘accessible’ is often completely different to the next person’s – depending on their particular condition, which makes the job of meeting everybody’s needs trickier than you might think.

The process starts with consideration and empathy for people using technology with a very wide-ranging scope of disabilities and conditions:

  • Have audio captions been provided for a video so that deaf users can follow?
  • How do you write guidance notes on a technical subject that a person with a cognitive disability or a low reading age can understand?
  • When designing a booking form can a user easily complete it using only a keyboard, given that they have Parkinson’s and their hands are shaking uncontrollably?
  • If a user with poor eyesight zooms their browser to 500%, can they still read everything?

With this perspective in mind, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published the first set of guidelines for web developers as long ago as 1999. The most recent version of those guidelines (the snappily named Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1) has now been incorporated in comparable legislation in the USA, European and United Kingdom.

The basic gist of the UK law is this: if you operate a public sector digital service (website or app) and don’t make it accessible to a certain level, you could be in breach of the regulations, which came into effect in September 2018. Commercial organisations are strongly encouraged to adhere to the guidelines too.

In the Isle of Man, the recent Equality Act 2017 also makes reference to the availability of information and public services without discrimination against those with protected characteristics.

At PDMS, as a business that specialises in designing and building digital solutions, including websites, we frequently encounter clients requesting features, content and colour combinations that might not be accessible. This sometimes requires careful discussion and explanation as there can be a conflict between what a client wants and what could constitute discrimination for certain users.

Did you know for example that animations with auto play can be extremely irritating for users with autism or ADHD? Or that long lines of justified text are practically impossible for dyslexics to read?

A common assumption is that by making a website or app conform to the guidelines, the accessibility box has been ticked. While working to the guidelines is definitely a good approach, it’s certainly not a fool proof one.

Research on Twitter and Reddit reveals many users living with disabilities and medical conditions which have not been specifically considered in the guidelines. Add in the constantly evolving technology landscape and the only viable answer seems to be to involve real users with real and varied disabilities in the long-term testing and improvement of information and digital services. This is the approach currently being taken and advocated by gov.uk, the UK government’s digital team.

From a human-centred perspective, considering – and involving – all users is actually a really good thing to do, regardless of what the law says. ‘Agile’ development processes support this really well as personas and user stories allow for individuals and groups needs to be considered, and this brings all sorts of benefits and quality improvements for everyone, not just people with disabilities.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) also usually benefits as websites with very accessible HTML (the language web pages are written in) tend to be better ranked by Google.

Customer satisfaction is often improved when websites are accessible as consideration has been given to all sectors of society: content should be easier to read and understand for all abilities and backgrounds, and interactive elements such as tools and forms should be easier and quicker to complete, and reversable.

On a less positive note, developing technology services and products with a very high level of accessibility can sometimes be more expensive due to increased planning, developing against certain standards, testing and being prepared to periodically re-test.

But web accessibility these days is not really a choice. It’s an essential – and very human – aspect of technology.

We may not be saving the world: I’m happy to leave that to Bond and Q. But we should be making the web a better place for all – I can live (and let die?) with that.

Links:

https://accessibility.blog.gov.uk/

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/accessibility-requirements-for-public-sector-websites-and-apps