Designing for Accessibility

Design Development
Aaron Marth
09/28/21

My inclusive web journey didn’t start where you’d think.

I have several family members with varying degrees of disabilities from colorblindness, to more severe with MS and Spina Bifida. You would think that in itself would be the driving force to stay inclusion-focused in the work I do. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. I, like probably many, just forge on in my own day-to-day path and biases, not really thinking of the struggle those with disabilities have interpreting the world around them every day.

It wasn’t until 2017 when my wife and I brought home our son from Thailand that my perspective began to change. I’m sure it’s common for new dads to experience something similar. Viewing the world around us through our kids’ eyes in new ways. My experience was a little more so because my son is half Thai and half African. This quickly brought up new questions and conversations as he interpreted the world around him and what he identified with. Things I hadn’t thought of before were now exposed and questioned and really started my journey to look at things differently than I had before.

Around the same time, SiteCrafting started seeing more need for ADA compliance with government and banking website clients coming in the door.

By 2019 it seemed to be a hot topic in the design community. Every conference I attended had multiple talks on the subject and the design blogs were turning out articles on it left and right.

I’m probably not the only one, but the rules seemed vague to me. I wanted to see if I could get to the root of it all so I could have a better understanding and so I could speak to it correctly both internally at SiteCrafting and externally with clients.

What is Inclusive Design? Why Does it Matter?

Inclusive design is an approach to developing digital products and experiences that takes a range of abilities into consideration so we, as digital makers, can create beyond our own experiences. It is an approach that is informed by the nuance of humanity and seeks to lower the barriers to engagement and participation.

At SiteCrafting, we believe in creating impact through technology that works for everyone, whatever their abilities. Our official position on designing for an inclusive web:

Designing for all abilities makes the web a better place for everyone. At SiteCrafting we recognize our impact is small but that everything we do adds up to big changes for the collective. We aren’t leaders in the movement but we are active participants doing our part to ensure the work we produce for our clients and ourselves extends beyond our limited lenses and can accommodate for a range of abilities, sensories and needs. We are guided by empathy and the principles set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. As a result, we weave checkpoints for inclusion through all of our processing including usability testing, design, development and quality assurance.

For all projects, we create a project test plan that is based on requirements and goals identified in the Discovery Phase. We also use tools like WAVE and AChecker in combination with manual ADA testing. All issues are logged or brought up with our development team on a per case basis to review and solve so that the website meets the appropriate standards.

Our team designs everything with accessibility in mind to ensure the user interface works properly with every type of assistive technology. These strategies include:

  • Making sure the site is keyboard-friendly
  • Making sure all content is easily accessible
  • Add Alt text to all images
  • Choose colors carefully
  • Use headers to structure your content correctly
  • Design forms for accessibility
  • Enable resizable text that doesn’t break the website
  • Avoid automatic media and navigation
  • Create content with accessibility in mind

So What are the Rules?

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was created in 1990, websites were not widely used, so the legislation did not address them. This has left uncertainty as to the question of whether all websites have to be ADA compliant or not.

Things were made clearer in September of 2018, when Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote an official letter to members of Congress that said that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to online accommodations.

Beyond that, guidelines seemed to be influenced by how the most recent high-profile case was ruled (Domino’s and Beyoncé to name a few). In most cases, the rulings generally came down to whether or not your website had a complete end-to-end service available and if so, was it available to those with disabilities.

In addition to the Department of Justice making its stance clear with the ADA, it frequently references the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the goal for website accessibility even though this isn’t codified into law. This is reflected in a majority of federal rulings now as 75 percent of federal claims reference WCAG 2.1 AA as the new standard we need to be at.

Why is it Important?

One reason is yes, nobody wants to get sued. In 2017, there were 814 ADA title III website Accessibility lawsuits in federal court. In 2018, that number jumped to 2,258, a 177 percent increase. There were 2,523 lawsuits in 2020.

We aren’t just talking about websites anymore either. Twenty percent of all federal ADA digital cases are now claiming apps are inaccessible. Stopgaps like A11y Widgets and overlays will not stop lawsuits either. Some lawsuits are even listing these widget features as an extra burden on the user.

Designing for All Abilities Makes the Web Better for All

While it’s true that nobody wants to get sued, I’d argue there are better reasons to design for an inclusive web.

1. Those Reasons are People
The most common disability type, mobility, affects one in seven adults. With age, disability becomes more common, affecting about two in five adults age 65 and older.

Designing for an Inclusive Web Stats about number of disabilities

Additional stats that make the case for inclusion:

  • 3.8 million U.S. adults aged 21-64 are blind or have trouble seeing, even with glasses.
  • 50 percent of US adults can’t read a book written at an eighth-grade level.
  • More than 466 million people worldwide have a hearing disability.
  • 98 percent of the world’s top one million websites don’t offer full accessibility.
  • 60 percent of screen reader users feel that web content accessibility is getting worse.

Designing for an Inclusive Web Stats about Accessibility

Online offerings also make the assumption that people can even access them. Many disabled people lack basic internet access and are more than twice as likely to live in poverty. Situational disabilities such as broken limbs, misplaced glasses and using smartphones in sunlight are worth mentioning as well.

2. $$$ on the Table
W3.org says one billion people with disabilities have a global spending power of six trillion dollars. How many of them are using your site? Or, flip it and ask — how many are not? Seventy-one percent of website visitors with disabilities will leave a website that is not accessible.

3. Solve for One, Extend to Many
Creating a solution to make accessibility easier for those with disabilities doesn’t just help them, it helps everybody. A great example of this is when Facebook added video subtitles to its video content in 2015. By 2016, 85 percent of videos were being watched without sound. On top of that, videos with subtitles had twice as many users finishing them.

4. My Reason
In my humble opinion making the web a more inclusive place helps make the world more inclusive. Sharing my craft – something I love and devote my life to — with more people is a great feeling. It is challenging, it makes me a better designer and also a better human.

So Where Can You Start?

  1. Start where you’re at. Businesses don’t always have the budget to start a website redesign at the drop of a hat, but there are things you can do without paying for a brand new site. For me, the first thing was shifting my perspective. From there it was other small steps. As a designer, a lot of my time is spent creating designs and mockups with placeholder content. I started being more conscious about the stock photos and placeholder copy I was using. Did it represent somebody other than myself? From there I started initiating conversations when opportunities presented themselves, asking my teammates and clients specific questions around ADA and inclusion.
  2. Treat web accessibility as a necessity, not a feature. Accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought or a Phase Two add-on for your project. It should be considered from the beginning.
  3. Audit your content. Most of us don’t have access to our site’s codebase to make adjustments but a lot of us do have access to our content. Take an audit of how it’s put together with not only with the words on the page, but visually. Consider the following questions:
    • Is it using easily accessible language whenever possible?
    • Is it written in a journalistic style? (Make a point, explain it)
    • Does it avoids unnecessary jargon and slang?
    • Where possible, does it use images, diagrams or multimedia for a visual translation of content?
    • Does it use white space and group content in a way that makes it easier to parse visually?
    • If your business is in a specialized industry, is a glossary for vocabulary and definitions needed?
  4. Ask questions. If you are working with a design agency on a project ask them if they design and test for ADA compliance. If your project requires it, ask if they do any testing beyond just using scanning/automatic tools. You can also use the opportunity to see where your brand guidelines currently sit by asking about any possible challenges it poses to meeting those ADA requirements. You might find a few small tweaks can get you there versus a major overhaul. Either way you’ll know how to proceed with future projects and that’s a win.

In the end, if you take small steps starting from where you are while striving to have empathy for others, you will be on the right path to making your content more inclusive. By doing that, you’ve helped pick up the cause to make the web — and this world — just a little bit better for everyone.

Do you need help making your website more accessible? Send us an email and we can talk through options with you.