What is accessibility and universal design?
Accessibility is the means in which something can be used by everyone. It is important that your organization’s websites and mobile applications are accessible so you are not excluding people from being able to use them. It also makes smart business sense.
Universal design is another term that is often thought about when conceptualizing designs for systems. Universal design is the idea that we strive to build technologies that include features that benefit everyone, not just for people with disabilities.
Luckily, we have guiding principles when it comes to helping us build accessible technologies. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by the W3C organization, supports this effort with the WCAG 2.0 guidelines. These cover a wide range of recommendations for making web content more accessible. In addition to these standards, federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act deal with accessibility. Section 508 standards, which are now based on WCAG 2.0 standards, mandate that any technology procured or built by the federal government be accessible.1
Why should we care about accessibility?
Making websites and mobile platforms accessible has numerous benefits for people with disabilities, average consumers, and our business. Among these benefits include building an expanded customer base, reducing development expenses, and preventing lawsuits.
By ensuring offerings are accessible, you are opening up your business to the maximum amount of customers and not leaving any group of people out. In addition, being proactive about building accessible technologies will save costs since it’s always more expensive to add features and fixes after initial development.
There is another reason why it’s so important — it potential puts you in legal trouble. The U.S. Department of Justice is beginning to consider websites under the public accommodation aspect of the ADA law, meaning they’d have to achieve WCAG 2.0 AA standards.2 While not finalized, it’s clear that soon this may be a requirement for all company websites.
Accessibility standards and guidelines
You can easily remember key aspects of WCAG 2.0 simply by following the POUR acronym — which stands for perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.3 These categories and related guidelines are often the standard in guiding a website or application in ensuring high levels of accessibility are met. There are different levels of conformance: A-AAA. We should strive to achieve at least AA for all our platforms.
- Provide text alternatives for any non-text content (includes use of alt tags for images)
- Page structures should follow logical orders (proper use of h1-h6 HTML page headings)
- Ensure proper color contrast (WCAG AA – check with webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker)
- Make all functionality available from a keyboard (system can’t rely on mouse)
- Provide users enough time to read and use content (give users control)
- Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures
- Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are (skip navigation, clear explicit links, corrected coded tables)
- Make text content readable and understandable
- Make web pages appear and operate in predictable ways
- Help users avoid and correct mistakes
- Maximize compatibility with assistive technologies (screen readers)
Info from W3C: https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20
Methods to ensure accessibility
Making platforms accessible will not happen overnight. However, you need to make a concerted effort to build in testing and validation procedures into development processes.
Here is an example of processes to adopt:
- Accessibility testing and code checking tools – development teams should start to build in accessibility code checking into development processes. Two ways to achieve this:
- Google Chrome’s built-in tool Audit tools
- FireEyes Plugin (Firefox and Google Chrome)
- ANDI validation tool by the Social Security Administration
- Keyboard-only testing – Developers or QAs can build in keyboard only testing. Set aside the mouse, and try to navigate the website using only with a keyboard. Iterate and test often.
- Screen reader testing – Use open source screen reader software or research purchasing JAWs licenses for development teams to test systems using a screen reader.
- Accessibility testing – Conduct accessibility testing with users with disabilities to test scenario-based tasks using users’ personal devices.
- Research more on how to integrate accessibility into teams: accessibility.digital.gov