Don’t be ‘short-sited’ - why you should care about web accessibility
This year the ability to order food and handle basic needs online literally became a matter of life and death.
Many vulnerable and disabled people, shielding from COVID, are understandably scared of going outside, but many are just as anxious about going online.
It’s hard to imagine how that feels. Most of us take our digital life for granted but if you’re living with certain disabilities, such as impaired vision or motor difficulties, most websites are practically impossible to use.
This doesn’t just affect a small minority; over 7.7 million people, 1 in 5 of the working-age population in Britain, report they are disabled and many more have a temporary disability.
Yet up to 70% of sites and apps still aren’t designed with accessibility in mind.
Isn’t the internet for everyone?
The internet is supposed to be about freedom of speech, openness and connecting the world. When Tim Berners Lee invented it, he wanted it to be free and accessible for everyone.
As he said in 2017, “I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.”
If we don’t design for everyone and create a more inclusive web, we’re going against the founding principles of what the internet and our industry should be about.
We’re also limiting access to potential customers and even our future selves. Any one of us could be affected by a limiting condition, yet accessibility remains an afterthought.
Giving a voice to the voiceless
While wheelchair ramps and Braille signage are commonplace in public spaces in the physical world, the digital world is a long way from being inclusive.
The problem with digital discrimination is that it’s hidden. Unless you rely on assistive tech to use the web, you don’t realise how hard it is.
Web accessibility is rarely mentioned in the media unless a high-profile brand or the likes of Beyonce are sued. At which point, there’s a sudden drive to improve.
But avoiding legal action is a weak reason to improve accessibility.
It has to become as automatic in designing digital experiences as it is in the design of new physical spaces.
Handled right, it can make your web content faster and easier to consume as well as ranking higher on search engines. It can even deliver return on investment.
An accessible site, marketed at people with disabilities, means attracting valuable customers who’ll likely remain loyal because your site beats the competition.
So why aren't more brands making their sites accessible?
Closing the empathy gap
Author Dylan Barrell says, “the empathy gap - the lack of knowledge or empathy around experiences for people with disabilities” is the main reason accessibility for all isn’t yet a reality.
In theory, good web design - particularly user experience design - hinges on the web teams’ ability to put themselves in their users’ shoes. But all too often, they’re putting themselves in the shoes of a size 10, white male user. In other words, someone like themselves.
If they tried using their site with a screen reader or via keyboard-only navigation, they’d be in tears in half an hour.
Yet any one of us could find our eyesight or motor skills diminishing, or with a temporary condition that would get in the way of us using the web. And we’d still need the internet as much as we do now. More so in times of crisis.
In fact, with the ageing population set to double by 2050 more and more of us are set to find ourselves in need of more accessible sites.
Every one of us, no matter our ability, is entitled to enjoy and consume content on the internet like the rest of society.
Yet even though most companies have diversity and inclusion policies and goals, they still exclude a large proportion of people from their digital products and services.
As we reach the age of internet maturity, it’s important to fight for accessibility before we end up marginalising even more people.
Especially with the threat of the pandemic and further lockdowns looming.
It’s down to us, as designers, marketers, project managers and digital professionals to fight for this.
As Tim Berners-Lee puts it, “It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone.”