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Elegant, Ethical Accessibility

January 22nd, 2016  |  K Andrews


This is me: There’s a cool event I’d like to go to so I’m trying to buy tickets online. But it’s 11pm and I’m tired, so the intermittent minor tremor in my hands is acting up. Tiny radio buttons and checkboxes become frustrating targets, and the tab key doesn’t work to navigate me through the web form, so I have to try to click on buttons and fields. Finally I get to the end, but the ‘cancel’ and ‘submit’ links are stacked right on top of each other, and I accidentally cancel my entire order. I want to call the company – You want me at your event, don’t you? Why are you making it so hard for me to give you my money?


Let’s look at this differently

Some disability activists are using the term ‘temporarily-abled’ to highlight that disability isn’t something that only ever affects a subset of the population.

Many of us will break or sprain a limb, requiring us to use crutches, canes, or wheelchairs. We may get concussions that impair our cognition, or illnesses that lower our mental and physical endurance. As we age, most of us will experience joint stiffness and pain, lowered visual acuity, or hearing loss.

The argument is that we often think of the world as divided into ‘able-bodied’ and ‘disabled’ people, but it’s not ‘us and them’, it’s just ‘us’. We had better design an accessible world, because we’re all going to need it one day. Disability isn’t a quality of a person. It’s a failure of their environment to meet their needs.


The looming spectre of AODA

Part of my job as a UX Designer is to work with graphic designers and developers to make sure that the digital spaces we’re creating are accessible.

Accessibility has become a scary word for a lot of businesses, especially in Ontario with the approaching deadlines of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which requires that web content pass WCAG 2.0 level AA accessibility guidelines by 2021.

It might be less intimidating to think of accessibility as a design philosophy. Accessibility awareness simply asks us to remember that at least 15% of Canadians currently have a disability, representing 1.7 million people in Ontario, and these numbers are steadily increasing. Disabled persons represent a potential $3.9 to 9.6 billion in retail spending over 5 years. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) notes that case studies show that accessible websites have better search results, reduced maintenance costs, and increased audience reach, among other benefits.

The business case for accessible web spaces is clear. Those of us with physical or cognitive impairments? We want to go to your events and subscribe to your feeds…we want to sign up for your services, we want to buy your products. We want to recommend you to our friends, to tweet about you and link to you. Don’t you want that too?


Accessibility ruins design!

The most common issue I hear from graphic designers and clients when accessibility comes up is that accessibility is ugly. They refer to accessibility-focussed design as being clunky, inelegant, awkward… they experience accessibility as compromising good design. My experience says otherwise. Let me show you some examples of accessible and elegant design.

Let’s start with an easy one from everyday life – doorknobs don’t seem like a big deal, unless you can’t grip something, or can’t twist your wrist (or if you’re carrying an armful of items, or have just put lotion on your hands). Door levers are just as elegant, and can be opened by just pushing down with a hand, an elbow, a cane, or a service dog. There’s some pretty cool design options too. Easy!

Moving to web, the first thing to note is that accessible design principles are often better for everyone, not just people who require accessibility features. For example, the requirement to provide captions for audio media doesn’t just help Deaf and hearing impaired users, it also allows us to watch videos with the sound turned off – useful for those times at work or on transit when you’ve forgotten your headphones.

While it’s difficult to find perfectly AA accessible websites, there are a number of good examples that have successfully incorporated accessibility in design. For example, University of Washington has an attractive site with clean navigation – it has clear headings, and simple iconography, and a clean design that highlights images and content. The site is developed in such a way that headings and site items are clearly labelled and navigable by a screen reader. Simple additions such as a ’skip to content’ button and landmarks make keyboard navigation easy.

https://www.gov.uk/ has an information-first design – it aims to use accessible language, intuitive structure, and straightforward navigation to get visitors to the information they need. It may not include stunning photography or animation, but it’s one of the most elegant and well constructed information resources I’ve found, and it’s completely accessible, from visual design to screen readers and keyboard navigation.


Accessibility is not a step, it’s a process

It’s not hard to make accessible sites, we just have to remember that it’s part of a universal design philosophy, not an afterthought. It’s not a burden when baked into design from day one, but if it is a consideration that only comes up in late design and development, the costs to address AODA significantly increase. We have to consider accessibility when crafting content, when designing site structure and page templates, when incorporating media, and developing interactions. We can do it elegantly, and in the process, engage a broader, more diverse audience, and build trust and loyalty. Don’t let AODA scare you – this is a great opportunity!


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