Part of a Whole

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

Web accessibility – It’s good for everyone

Web accessibility benefits everyone. And by everyone, I mean people with various disabilities, including but not limited to vision loss, as well as people without disabilities: Many of the barriers encountered by people with disabilities on the web are also problematic for people without disabilities.

Originally published on LinkedIn.

A wide spectrum of impairments

People often think about web accessibility in terms of making a site work for “screen reader users”. It is perhaps easy to understand why: In the early days of graphical browsers, blind advocates were quite vocal that the web needed to work for them as well. After all, the <img> tag was introduced in HTML in 1992, but it took 3 years for the alt attribute to be introduced, permitting images to become usable for screen reader users. It is only later on that other disability groups started saying “Hey! What about us?”. 

My own “Ah ha!” moment about web accessibility occurred in the mid 1990’s when a blind colleague told me that the proliferation of images on the web sounded fun and practical for everyone but him, since his screen reader kept announcing the word “image” but he had no clue what the image was about, which became even more problematic since so many designers used images of text to be able to use cool fonts. Shortly after that a Deaf colleague was grumbling about the lack of captions on an instructional video she needed to watch to setup her printer at home. And the third element of the trifecta happened when a client with significant ADHD told me how difficult it was for her to get anything out even the simplest website: Heading sizes, link colours, moving text (some of you may remember the <marquee> tag!) all contributed to distracting her to the point of needing to walk away. I was able to write a CSS override stylesheet that helped her greatly. These got me started on making sure sites were accessible for people with a wide range of impairments.

While accessibility for screen readers is indeed a mission critical aspect of implementing web accessibility, there are people with many more types of impairment that will benefit from accessibility improvement.

Just like a ramp could be accessible for one wheelchair user but too steep for another, three people with low vision could have differing requirements: one might prefer to zoom text at 400% while another might prefer to use High Contrast mode, and a third might combine High Contrast and text zoomed to 200%.

I all too often hear developers say that they built an “accessible” site. That site turns out to be quite screen reader friendly, but maybe not accessible to everyone. We must remember sighted people relying on keyboard, or keyboard-like devices such as switches. We should also think about people with cognitive impairments or learning disabilities. There are many groups with various impairments that have differing accessibility needs. Writing a detailed list of every possible permutation of how people’s impairments affect their use of the web is beyond my scope. But here are a few situations to consider:

  • Cerebral palsy can make fine movements like controlling a mouse difficult (think small checkboxes)
  • Paralysis after a stroke or spinal cord injury may make one’s movement slower or harder to control.
  • Cognitive impairments could make it harder to read complex text.
  • Low vision can make it difficult to perceive text with insufficient colour contrast.
  • Being Deaf or hard-of-hearing make it nearly impossible to understand videos that aren’t captioned.
  • A traumatic brain injury can make it harder to concentrate or make you tired very easily, making it harder to understand large complex pages.
  • ADHD can make it difficult to focus on pages with scrolling text or automated carousel or pop-up windows.

Accessibility isn’t just for people with disabilities

Curb cuts help wheelchair users. But they also help parents pushing strollers, kids on skates, or tradesmen pulling dollies loaded with tools or goods. The reality is that accessibility, whether online or in the real world, helps a wide variety of people, with and without impairments.

Here is a list similar to the one above, but for people without disabilities:

  • Small checkboxes on your phone or tablet are difficult to tap on if you have big fingers.
  • Interacting with a site on your phone while on the bus can make your movements harder to control.
  • Non-native speakers will benefit from Plain Language.
  • Looking at your phone in bright sun can make it difficult to perceive text with insufficient colour contrast.
  • Open plan work environments can make it difficult to understand video tutorials that aren’t captioned.
  • Pregnancy can make it harder to concentrate or make you tired very easily, making it harder to understand large complex pages.
  • Young children playing nearby or colleagues in open plan office can make it difficult to focus on page with scrolling text or automated carousel or pop-up windows.

Note: Many of these exemples talk about mobile phone users. In 2015, the number of mobile-only internet users became greater than the number of desktop-only internet users in the US.

Inclusion vs Accessibility

We need to think about inclusion rather than about specific disability accessibility needs. And inclusion means, among other things, making sure everyone is welcome and can use our sites. You’ll have seen from the list above that many barriers for people with disabilities on the web also impact visitors without disabilities. Accessibility benefits everyone. This is why I prefer to think about Universal Design and inclusion rather than just accessibility.