Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Accessibility: Build it, and They Will Come

Accessibility on the web raises questions, disagreements, and passion. Let me tell you why I personally cannot compromise on accessibility.

First, let me point out that I am a person with disabilities. I have several disabilities, but the most obvious is that I use a wheelchair. I do not have a vision disability, but have more than a handful of friends, employees and consumers who do. I cannot help but draw parallels between my experience with brick and mortar stores’ lack of access, and my friends’ experiences on the web. I can’t get in the building, they can’t get into the website. Different, yet similar. Let’s continue.

Please note this is article was written for Dave Shea’s Mezzoblue and is republished here.

It’s Your Responsibility

Why is accessibility important to you, the designer? In many cases, it’s the Law (for US based companies, at any rate). While there is currently one case creating a precedent against the Americans with Disabilities Act applying to US based online businesses, this will likely change in the near future. The spirit of the ADA is not being followed by judges who see it as a brick & mortar law, when it is in fact a civil rights law. The disability community is working hard to push one that would represent that aspect. But the ADA is only one law that addresses online presence; there is also Section 508 (of the Rehabilitation Act). I won’t go into details of that, but basically if the group you are working with receives federal funding, they had better be compliant.

If you’re only the designer, why does it matter if your client insists on a non-accessible site? Consider this: in brick & mortar lawsuits it’s common practice to sue the owner as well as the architect, contractor, and anyone else involved in construction of the building. It’s only a matter of time before non-accessible sites will start being named in lawsuits. You can bet that as the site’s designer, you will be named in the suit as well. You have a responsibility to make accessibility happen; don’t ask your client, chances are they don’t even know what you’re asking about. If you develop solid habits when you design, it’s easy to make a site comply not only with priority 1, but WAI priority 2. (Priority 3 is much more finicky, but not impossible) Feed your clients accessible websites, perhaps even despite what they think they want.

…but it’s such a small market! It’s easy to dismiss accessibility concerns with a statistic. You may have good eyesight, but how’s your Vision? Approximately 10 million people with visual disabilities (blind and low-vision) live in the US alone. And the market share is growing, especially considering many folks prefer to shop online for products and services. An accessible web site is so much easier than fighting with transportation and figuring out a product at the store. Also consider that these 10 million people have family and friends who will often patronize a particular business because they know it’s more accessible to their loved ones with disabilities. And let’s not forget we live an aging society where soon a large percentage of people will have vision issues.

You Don’t Want to Consider Accessibility!

But how can we consider all cases? Some debaters are fond of using extreme imagery of folks with multiple and very significant disabilities (e.g. Deaf and Blind and paralysed “from the neck down”), arguing they will never receive the full experience that someone without a disability will. Of course not, but frankly we people with disabilities grow tired of other folks shrugging off their responsibility by using the extreme example. A little goes a long way, and making no attempt at all in this direction because “you can’t please everyone” is an excuse for the idle.

Okay! I got your attention, put that flame thrower back in the closet! Seriously, we say we’re all for accessibility, as long as we don’t have to work too hard at it. That last bit is unstated, yet comes through loud and clear in most discussions. In fairness, it is indeed a lot of work to go back into a site and retrofit for access. Just like it’s difficult, time consuming and costly to remove a 28” wide door and replace it with a 32” wide door. Had the proper width door been planned for from the beginning, well, you wouldn’t have had the problem to start with!

One major issue stems from the fact that more and more frequently, we don’t have the option of seeing products at a “real” store. Products or services are only accessible online, which means a person cannot visit the physical store. Without that option, a site that isn’t accessible shuts out a whole lot of people. And whether consciously done or not, that is discrimination.

As my good friend Dan Wilkins says: A community that excludes even one of its members is no community at all. Of course, this is not a question of community, but one of business. I would argue that without the community supporting the business, there is no business. But that’s another discussion.

Challenges to Consider

I was asking Denise, a colleague of mine, about the problems she encounters on the web. She pointed out that sites using Flash don’t let her go anywhere. And while there may be more accessibility features in the most recent versions of Flash, it’s still not really an accessible technology. She was also telling me that a number of sites have a splash page with one big graphic, and no alternate text or anything to give an inkling as to what she is supposed to do from there.

What I found very telling is that when I asked Denise if she could give me a few websites that she found particularly non-accessible, she couldn’t. Because if it’s not accessible, she moves on to another site! (and promptly forgets where she was). These companies never had a chance to even showcase their products to her.

Drawing another parallel with brick & mortar, I’ll tell you about Pete. Pete was my car mechanic in Illinois. Pete is probably one of the best, most affordable, and honest mechanics there is. A gem. But Pete’s garage was not accessible. It had one step in front of the entrance. It’s not much, only 6”. A mere step for you who are walking, you won’t even notice it. Yet it means that I can’t get in. And in the middle of winter, when it’s -20°F, or in the middle of summer, when it’s over 100°F, having to wait outside is not only unpleasant and inconvenient, but can be outright dangerous.

I asked Pete to put in a ramp. He then asked me, “why should I put a ramp in? You’re the only customer I have in a wheelchair.” I asked him why he thought that was. Of course if your potential customers can’t get in, you won’t have them as a customer! He agreed to build the ramp. And when he did, I recommended him to all my friends. Pretty soon, his customer base increased by nearly a dozen people. Not bad for investing $300 in cement.

The point of this is that while you can track who visits your site(s), you cannot track if they have a disability or not. So you can’t excuse accessibility by claiming you don’t have any blind visitors. But you can rely on the fact that if you build it, they will come. Word of mouth is big in the disability community.

Spreading the Word

Of course, awareness is a big problem. The issues surrounding the need for web accessibility seem to be a closely guarded secret. Frankly, before I landed in this wheelchair, I was blissfully ignorant of accessibility issues. I am not faulting anyone who doesn’t know about the issues for not fixing their sites. But the moment one becomes aware, one must think about starting accessible/universal web design.

I also fault people with disabilities in all this. If accessibility is such a secret on the web, it is in part because we don’t speak up enough. I have no compunction telling someone when their site (or restaurant, or…) is not accessible, but I find that a majority of other folks with disabilities aren’t that vocal. If more people took the time to email site owners with faulty design, we would see the word and requests for accessible sites grow.

On the other hand, having been on the receiving end of the rejection that usually follows my requests for accessibility, I know that it is difficult to keep on advocating. Typically, email asking for a site to be more accessible are either ignored, or sent canned answer like “thank you for bringing this to our attention, we’ll look into it.” Months later, of course, they haven’t changed a thing. It’s a brush off. Every once in a while, we get an outright we don’t care about it, shove off (in so many words or not).

In Summary

I probably could go on and on and you wouldn’t be the first one to rightfully accuse me of having diarrhea of the mouth/fingers. Let’s draw this to a conclusion for now. Here are a few parting thoughts/recap:

Making accessible sites is not that difficult.
Even if you opt to only fulfill WAI Priority 1, you’ll have a site that is at least usable.
Making accessible sites is the right thing to do.
Shunning (on purpose or not) people just because they have a different way to do things is bad, and you’re not bad people.
Making accessible sites benefits everyone.
There are more and more people surfing on devices that need a little help, like PDAs, cell phones, etc.
Making accessible sites brings in $$$.
In today’s market, I cannot accept the argument that a market share is too small to be worth catering to, especially considering the very low cost of building accessible sites. Every dollar in sales is important to today’s companies.
We must pass the word about accessible/universal design.
Until more and more people demand accessible sites, and more and more designers demand tools providing accessible design features, it won’t happen on the scale it really needs to.

For more on the subject, here are some sites of interest:

So… That’s that for now.

One thought on “Accessibility: Build it, and They Will Come

  1. Dear Nic, thank you for your gripping, informative and beautifully written piece. I feel my mind has stretched a bit and won’t return to its former narrowness. I appreciate this learning very much. Best regards, P. :)

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