An introduction to web accessibility
Date Posted: May 28, 2016
One afternoon, my brother and I were watching a snowboarding video together. He’s been snowboarding for years and has even had the opportunity to represent Canada on the international stage—I’m super proud of him. He was using the video to show me where he was heading to train in a few weeks—beautiful mountains with the crystal white snow glimmering in the golden glow of the setting sun. The narrator was telling the story of some famous snowboarder and the challenges that he was facing in an upcoming competition.
And then I remembered that my brother wasn’t experiencing the story.
My brother is deaf—has been almost his entire life. I often forget that his experience differs from mine until we share situations like this one. It’s in these moments that I remember why accessibility is important.
Everyone should be included in your brand’s story.
What is web accessibility?
When the term web accessibility gets mentioned, there’s a few things that jump to most people’s minds. First is closed captioning. Second is alternate text on images (also known as “alt text”), which is descriptive text associated with an image that helps people with a visual impairment understand the meaning of the image. Colour contrast is a third one—chances are you know someone who can’t tell red from green.
But accessibility is so much more than that. Accessibility truly means access to all.
Anne Gibson wrote an amazing piece for now-defunct Pastry Box Project called An Alphabet of Accessibility Issues, which describes 26 quick scenarios—one for each letter of the alphabet—featuring people who experience both permanent and short-term barriers to accessing information. Here’s a quick excerpt:
“M can’t consistently tell her left from her right. Neither can 15% of adults, according to some reports. Directions on the web that tell her to go to the top left corner of the screen don’t harm her, they just momentarily make her feel stupid.”
When designing for the web, the last thing we want our users to feel is stupid. If they need to complete a task, they should feel capable and confident.
Does my website need to be accessible?
This is a question that can be approached from different angles. Let’s start with the legal.
In 2005, Ontario passed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which states that private or non-profit organizations with 50+ employees and all public sector organizations regardless of size must meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This legislation is being phased in over time. As of 2014, organizations that are required to follow the AODA must ensure any new websites, significant refreshes to existing websites and new content meet the WCAG 2.0 Level A requirements. By 2021, organizations required to comply with the AODA must go back to any websites, including individual pieces of content, that were made available after 2012 to ensure they meet an even higher standard of web content accessibility—the WCAG 2.0 Level AA requirements.
However, there’s more to this than just legislation.
According to Statistics Canada, “an estimated 3.8 million adult Canadians reported being limited in their daily activities due to a disability in 2012. This represents 13.7% of the adult population.” By making your website accessible, you can increase your potential user base significantly.
An organization that puts effort into reaching all types of users shows that it cares. If a user attempts to use a site a certain way and they’re not able to, it’s quite simple—they conclude that the company behind the website doesn’t care about their needs, and they’ll move on to a competitor who may be able to meet those needs. Showing that you care about the diversity of your audience can go a long way in today’s social web.
Accessibility benefits everyone
A common reaction to the accessibility requirements is that only a small population can benefit from these features. But that’s not true.
Let’s go back to the closed captioning scenario. I’m fortunate in that my hearing is still quite good, yet I often find myself using closed captioning in a variety of situations. If I’m on my phone in a crowded and noisy location or I don’t have any headphones with me and I don’t want to disturb those around me, I’ll happily turn on a video’s closed captioning so that I can quickly catch up on the latest news update or a documentary on the go. Ever watch a film or TV show and you can’t quite understand what that Scottish character is saying? Closed-captioning is great!
Accessibility is about real people
The snowboarding video prompted me to ask my brother a couple of questions about his experiences online. The most frustrating thing for him is a pretty common occurrence—most videos on the Internet don’t have closed captioning. (I can definitely attest to that, too.) Sure, YouTube has automatic captioning, but if you’ve ever tried to use it you’ll quickly see that there’s some huge room for improvement.
I asked him how those experiences made him feel.
“I feel disappointed. I really want to understand what the video is about and what people are saying.”
There’s steps that we can all take to make the web a more inclusive space. Conversations are happening more and more, education material is increasingly available and there’s some very talented people working on tools to make accessibility easier. By not excluding and alienating users, your brand can be reaching out to an even larger audience than it is today. And by making small improvements that may appear to only target the few, chances are you’re also helping the many.
Accessibility isn’t about doing specific things for specific people. We need to shift the mindset so that the thought is more about doing things to include everyone. The web was built with the potential to give barrier-free access to everyone. Let’s continue to work towards realizing that amazing potential.