Injustice prevails when you or I stand by, unaware or unmoved, and take no action to challenge its existence. It is often unseen and results in unintentional marginalisation.
As a contributor to today’s digital landscape, and as a human being who loves to help, I am deeply dissatisfied with the status quo of poor accessibility. The talk and desire for accessible websites is to be celebrated and leads to some action, but we must do more. WCAG compliance is a good start, but it’s not the endgame. It’s time you and I do our bit to level the playing field of web accessibility.
Fresh from 24 hours, across three days, of 1:1 research interviews and validation workshops, I am buzzing with a newfound awareness of the ways in which we (the digital sector) can enable people with additional needs to have an equitable online experience, and I feel compelled to share.
- The local council website that blocks someone from finding out when their next recycling collection is.
- A news corporation with a ‘website of the year’ label, whose cookie consent pop-out does not respond to keyboard tabbing and therefore excludes screen reader users from reading a news article.
- A global accommodation booking website fails to allow users to keyboard tab through a date picker on a form, blocking them from searching for or booking accommodation.
This inconsideration, insensitivity and ignorance is unacceptable. A basic lack of consideration for all users leads to marginalisation, albeit unintentional.
We must do more
These 24 hours of research were spent with a whole host of people with common aspirations, interests, needs and goals as you or I. Only, their path to achievement is fraught with pitfalls: websites and apps that ignore the needs of people with disabilities; from sight loss to mobility, autism to dyslexia.
While maintaining my research moderator role, as a human I have been humbled, inspired, and (in experiencing participants’ frustrations) angered. It has been the most emotionally intensive, cognitively taxing, and rewarding research project I have had the privilege to be involved with.
As several research participants attested to, their ability to access digital products and services has greatly improved in recent years. However, good is not good enough. More resource, more time, and more awareness is required to ensure access for all.
Here are a collection of my key takeaways:
1. Everyone’s lived experience of disability is unique
As each session progressed, I witnessed participants demonstrate how their disabilities impaired their use of technology, each with their own unique nuisances. What impacted one person would not necessarily be the same for someone else with the same disability. Similarly, workarounds that aided one person, are not guaranteed to work for another – each person has learned preferences and techniques to overcome inaccessible websites.
Awareness of, and access to aids also greatly influenced everyone’s experience. For example, one visually impaired participant had discovered a free high-contrast browser extension for Chrome, which enabled them to view the text in their preferred light-on-dark format. Another person with a similar need was not aware of this extension, so battled through without.
2. The impact of poor usability is multiplied for people with additional needs
When it comes to accessibility, diligence in the detail counts. For example, an image with missing or minimal alt text leaves some users with a sense of missing out. As one participant described a photo with the alt text, ‘image’ is particularly infuriating! Inconsiderate even.
Injustice and inequality were words in mind while witnessing this research. Some participants described how they felt like they were missing out, due to the assumption that all users can see a diagram, graph, or picture. Some described how even if images did have alt text, the brevity was far short of providing an equivalent sighted experience.
Sadly, others blamed themselves when they stumbled upon blockers such as unhelpful form validation prompts on an address entry field, assuming it was their fault that they are unable to complete a task on a website. This is unacceptable.
3. Building accessible websites is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do
What is at stake? This is not merely about the experience of people with additional needs. It is about the experience of all users. By improving the accessibility of your digital products and services, you will not only enable disabled users to have a complete experience, but you will also enhance the experience of all users.
For example; breaking up text into digestible chunks, using correctly labelled and logical heading structures, with consistent font styling, will enable readability for all, and organic search will improve as the search engines can better crawl your content.
As a reader of this blog, you are likely already aware of classic and cringe-worthy poor web practices such as auto-playing videos, popups, poor contrast, and ‘funky design’, but we cannot assume all designers and content owners are aware – it was not just amateur websites that offered some of the aforementioned experiences, but international brands and services too. I expect the CEOs of these companies would raise hell and high water to bring about change were they to witness this injustice for themselves.
Many UXers talk of having a user-centred awakening: a memorable moment in which their eyes were opened to the true essence and meaning of user-first. I have had my second awakening, an accessibility epiphany. Awakenings cannot be undone; I will be forever alert to and sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities through my role as a researcher and contribution to the world as a human. I say it is time for more UXers, designers and developers to have their own accessibility awakening. When will you have your awakening…?
If nothing else…
…try it yourself. Open a frequently used travel booking website. Then, try to use only your keyboard to book a ticket. Take that a step further by turning on narration (Crtl + Windows Key + Return for windows users) and try to do the same task with your eyes closed. See how far you get.