In the last two weeks I have been named one of two Accessibility Advocates for the HMRC site at Shipley. As a result of this, and getting my head into the depths of this responsibility, there are a few things I have been musing about the hotly debated subject of accessibility.

Beware. Caveat approaching.

I must start by saying that I am in no way an accessibility guru. I am just passionate about the subject and feel that I can make a difference, however small that impact may be. If I make one designer think about accessibility in their role, that is a win for me.

In my previous role where I was developing e-learning packages, I learned how to apply accessibility tools and the WCAG standards to the modules I was producing and got quite confident with that. So when asked to do a similar role here in my latest role I figured “yeah, I can do that, no problem”. So I started to look at how the standards apply to the (very complicated) services we are developing. Crikey, Pandora’s box has opened with a boom.

I promptly realised there is a whole other complicated world of accessibility requirements when you look at websites and services, some of them so difficult to understand that is is taking me hours to even understand the number of implications, let alone how they work, who’s role they are, how to test them and anything else the rears it’s head. But if even me, Miss ‘Oh, hell, what did I just press?’ can give it a bash, then people in the development roles should certainly be doing it. And how on earth can I train others in this, when my previous knowledge doesn’t quite apply the same here?

It would be easy to give up, say I have this specific knowledge of accessibility and leave it to others to continue this fight. Or use the good old excuse ‘it’s not my job’. And believe me, I did get overwhelmed by it and consider that. For a fleeting moment.

So what changed?

I repeatedly hear statements such as ‘accessibility ruins the design’, ‘there’s no point, only a few people need it’ and ‘it makes X totally unusable’. Add to this the mentality of ‘don’t worry about that, we’ll just add it later’, plus so many rolling eyes that I suspect the opticians in this area will see a surge in eye strain, and I begin to realise this problem is quite an epidemic. At a larger scale than I had initially realised. Boom. There goes Pandora’s box number two.

So I once again feel the need to fight for the cause. I honestly believe it is everyone’s job and that it is not just a checklist exercise at the end of development. And coincidentally, it leads to so many complications and reworks if you do take that approach. That’s your punishment for not considering it earlier.

Why is accessibility important?

It makes ALL our lives better. <I’m just going to leave that there>

No really…

Aside from the fact that we all benefit from making services accessible, it is now a legal obligation. This should not be your only reason for doing employing accessibility in your design but is something that helps to back up your fight and in particular, can win management over because no-one wants the nasty old fine and a damaged reputation.

You only have to watch some of the many videos on YouTube of people with disabilities interacting with inaccessible services to understand how we can make things a mega-gazillion times better for them, often by changing such small habits in what we do as designers or just learning a few new techniques, such as making a website navigable by keyboard only. Why should anyone be excluded just because they are dyslexic, blind, deaf, have ADHD, mobility issues or a wealth of other affecting factors?

“The results of inclusive design for accessibility always leads to a better product for everyone.” Head of Xbox, Phil Spencer

So where’s the problem?

There is a level of ignorance and/or a lack of education about accessibility, which appears to have lead to a common belief that it is ‘just about screen readers’ and that nobody needs certain services to be accessible. But why shouldn’t someone with an impairment be able to access all the same things as the rest of us or complete the same tasks? In reality, many of us use accessibility devices and features every day without even realising it.

Do you;
– Wear glasses?
– Listen to audiobooks?
– Have a hearing aid?
– Zoom in on your phone to see a picture clearer?
– Increase the font size on your Kindle or tablet to read better?
– Use subtitles whilst trying to watch a video on a noisy train?
– Change colour schemes on your computer to suit your preferences?

These are just a few examples of features that make the user experience, or even just daily life, better for us all, and can make something accessible for a person with a disability who might otherwise be excluded.

Add to this still upheld myths such as ‘screen readers are only used for blind people’. In fact, they are increasingly used by dyslexics who find it much easier to understand or interpret information when they have the words read out to them. A solution which helps one disability can also be adapted for another.

As Russ (the real accessibility guru) at Shipley says “The very definition of accessibility is to make something usable. For all”. By ignoring it and continuing to build services as we have been we risk alienation of the UK’s 13.9 million disabled people, increasingly the 3.7 million of those people in work (Scope).

The best analogy I can think of at the moment is that by denying this right, it is like taking a friend’s glasses off them and telling them they are no longer allowed to drive as their vision is too poor. They are now going to have to walk home for 30 miles (in a freak typhoon if we are comparing to some websites) whilst blindfolded, maybe backward, or in a three-legged race tied to an octopus. Okay, so the deliriousness from lack of sleep may be showing there, but you get my drift. It’s hard, very hard. <Ahem> Moving on…

What can you do?

1. Help us to fight the fight, and educate others. Join accessibility groups, become an advocate, preach, relay the truth to your team, put on a workshop, put posters up. However, you can, help to inform.

2. If you would like more information I am happy to share the bits I know, and in time, I will be producing more blog posts on accessibility resources and guidelines for designers. Feel free to use these within your teams.

3. I would love to hear any input from yourselves on tackling the accessibility blockade, or ways in which you have managed to get the message across successfully to your teams. Did you manage to get some eyes rolled back out of the head?

4. And a challenge. For those who are still skeptical, I dare you to download a screenreader trail and try to navigate through your computer or a non-accessible website with the screen switched off. Go on – it’ll be fun. I promise.