April 8, 2020 Interview with an expert: Why digital accessibility is now more important than ever

By Jacinta Koelewyn

man in blue sweater holding an Ipad

The internet is an almighty tool that can remove communication barriers and unite people across the globe. It has transformed the world in unimaginable ways, but not for everybody.

Did you know that one in five Australians have a disability? That’s nearly 20% of the population. Digital barriers can stop people from accessing basic goods and services online. People with vision impairments, those who speak English as a second language, and older people with low tech skills are just some of the those impacted. Yet, web accessibility is rarely made a priority.

So, what is web accessibility and why is it more important now than ever? We spoke with digital strategist and accessibility expert, Chris Burke, to unpack a few things you should know about web accessibility, as well as some inclusivity quick wins.

What is web accessibility?

In a nutshell, web accessibility is the practice of making digital experiences accessible to all. While inclusivity and web accessibility are often used interchangeably, inclusivity is a broader way of thinking about different users. On the other hand, web accessibility is the specific craft that makes websites a more inclusive space.

Chris says “it’s a human right to access information without exclusion – which includes online platforms. It’s our obligation to do our best to make everyone feel included”.

Coronavirus and digital accessibility

With the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are relying on digital channels than ever before. For businesses, websites could be the raft that keeps them afloat in turbulent waters. For individuals, it could be the difference between accessing essential goods and services to live and work, or not.

If your website isn’t an equal playing field for people of all abilities, you may be excluding a big portion of your potential customers.

Who benefits from web accessibility?

When thinking about accessibility, most people picture things like ramps and rails. But web accessibility goes beyond physical impairments – it even extends to people who don’t identify as disabled, too.

There are three main groups of people who benefit from accessibility: physical, cognitive and situational.

1. Physical

  • Physical impairments, such as hearing, vision and mobility.

2. Cognitive

  • Conditions we don’t necessarily see, such as dyslexia and learning difficulties
  • It can relate to people who don’t identify as disabled, such as people with limited English, or those with a basic understanding of technology.

3. Situational

Sometimes situational or temporary factors make it harder to access digital content. For example:

  • You could be watching videos on a crowded train or office and need captions
  • You may only be able to access a website on your desktop, not on mobile
  • You may have a temporary physical impairment, like your arm in a cast or a baby on your hip while you try and multi-task. 

More people than you might have thought, right? When you’re considering who is impacted on your website – it’s important to think about different people and situations that could be hindering them. When you include cognitive and situational factors, it’s a huge chunk of people that benefit directly.

Why is web accessibility important

Chris likes to think of web accessibility as a measure of quality. “If someone creates a brand-new, shiny website but hasn’t considered accessibility, the quality of the output is compromised”.

In Chris’ experience, even in big web redesign jobs, accessibility is often not on the agenda. Businesses can think they’re ticking all the boxes, prioritising mobile-first experiences and doing user research. But some are forgetting a crucial question: Who are the users? From an inclusivity perspective, how do we know if they’re from a diverse background or not? 

If you’re putting in the hard work to develop a website, consider how people with impairments, English as a second language or older people would interact with the site.

If this way of thinking runs through every facet of the project, including design, content, tech and launch, you’re far more likely to have a higher quality output.

What are some misconceptions about accessibility?

Here’s the truth behind some top misconceptions that Chris faces about accessibility.

Misconception 1: ‘Accessibility is only for blind people or people in wheelchairs’

Disabilities are not just what you can see. If you limit your thinking to this specific group, it’s easy to think it’s not as important, because it impacts fewer people. But cognitive and situational impairments should be considered too.

Misconception 2: ‘I don’t know anyone with a disability’

Those stats don’t lie! While it may not be at the front of your mind, you’re likely to know an elderly person, someone with bad hearing or vision, or someone who’s not great with technology.

Misconception 3: ‘We don’t have anyone like that using our websites’

Whether you’re a small business or a big player, everyone has a responsibility to do their bit. We’ve already highlighted how many people have accessibility needs. If you don’t think you have anyone from those groups visiting your website, think again.

Misconception 4: ‘We don’t have enough time or budget’

Accessibility doesn’t have to be an expensive headache or just a ‘nice to have’. It can also be about finding the low-hanging fruit. If it’s a small part of every decision-making stage, you won’t have a long list of problems to go back and fix. You might even save money. And you’ll end up with a higher quality product that connects with more people.

Misconception 5: ‘Accessibility is only for government sites’

Chris says this misconception is probably driven by the fact web accessibility is mandated for government websites in Australia. But it’s not just for government sites – everyone has a moral obligation to do their bit.

What can you tell us about WCAG?

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a commonly accepted benchmark that everyone strives towards. It’s been around for about 20 years and has a hierarchy of principles, including:

  1. Perceivable – information and components must be visible to the user’s senses
  2. Operable – user interface components and navigation can be operated
  3. Understandable – users must be able to understand the information and how to use the website
  4. Robust – content can be reliably used by assistive technologies (e.g. screen reader).
Web Accessibility Content Guidelines hierarchy
Table: Web Accessibility Content Guidelines hierarchy

What are the implications of not considering accessibility?

It comes back to quality. If your website isn’t friendly to a range of audiences, it’s not a good product. Pre-pandemic, if your website was a pain point for customers, they could simply go in-store. Now, they solely rely on digital mediums – so accessibility has never been more crucial.

Making someone feel excluded online can also have legal ramifications, but Chris says the important thing is to focus on how you can do better, not what happens if you don’t.

Whose responsibility is accessibility in the web development process?

The short answer is everyone. Every person in the digital team from the designer to the content writer to the web developer has a responsibility to consider the needs of their users. In particular, it sits with the decision-makers who are driving the project and writing the requirements. They should be the champions, helping people be on the same page and follow their lead.

Why should accessibility be a priority for businesses?

For many businesses, the global pandemic may have closed off all your usual channels with customers. Whether it’s now or when the dust settles, creating an open, inclusive experience is always a good thing.

Remember, it’s not necessarily about jumping through unreachable hoops or spending a fortune. It’s all about building better quality products that help remove barriers for the people using them.

And it’s not all or nothing! There are small steps that can be taken throughout the journey. Instead of seeing it as a burden, view it as an opportunity to reach more people and gain loyal customers.

What are some quick-win accessibility opportunities?

Write good HTML code

Good code – the technology under the hood of a website – also conveys meaning to other programs or devices. Adapting content to be mobile-friendly is a prime example of making content accessible to everyone.

Consider keyboard navigation

Rather than using a mouse, some users navigate the internet with a keyboard. You can even do a quick test now. Visit your website and select the browser address bar. Now use the ‘Tab’ key to navigate through your page. How did you go? Were you able to make your way through the menu and to important links?

For keyboard navigation to work well, all interactive elements need to be accessible. If this all sounds confusing, don’t worry – your web developer will know what to do. Or read this article with keyword accessibility tips.

Write in plain English

Plain English is clear, concise copy that’s easily understood by most people. This is done using common words with better readability. This includes:

  • Avoiding jargon
  • Using active voice (not passive)
  • Aiming for a year 9 reading level.

Learn more about writing succinctly on our blog post.

Use closed captions for media

If you have a hearing disability, English isn’t your native language, or even just happen to be in a crowded or loud environment, subtitles make all the difference. This is an essential consideration for anyone producing video content. There are plenty of free tools out there that can automate subtitles with the touch of a button.

Include high contrast colours

For people with colour blindness, or low vision (which is common in older people), good colour contrast can remove a wall between them and the content they want to access.

Colours like red and orange can be hard to distinguish. Whereas opposite colours, like black and white, are easier to read.

Create a clear, consistent layout and design

If your website is poorly designed, someone with low computer literacy or visual or cognitive impairments may struggle. By creating a logical structure with clearly marked headings and next steps, your customers won’t get frustrated and abandon the site.

Find your sweet spot between easy to fix and high impact

As your digital becomes more important by the day, it’s a great time to assess your website using a range of online accessibility tools. It doesn’t need to be about achieving perfection. It’s about finding the low-hanging fruit that make your site a more valuable asset, while being easier to use. Rather than focus on what you can’t do, find the little opportunities that are in your power.

At Avion, writing accessible content that’s easy to understand is close to our hearts. Get in touch with us today to learn more.

To get a helping hand with your website accessibility, reach out to Chris today on LinkedIn or check out his agency, Otaku Digital.