By Shaun Marquardt | Guest Columnist
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When designing Web pages, products, or services, it is easy to forget to include all the members of our society, especially users with disabilities. It is not a person’s individual (dis)ability, but rather product designs, that create barriers to accessibility.
This article presents some guidelines to make your business’ website more usable and accessible to customers of all abilities. Any business misses almost 20 percent of potential customers if it does not pay attention to the needs and interests of disabled people. This group has a sizable discretionary income—$175 billion dollars’ worth (Theofanos and Redish 2003).
This article introduces key concepts about disability, accessibility, and usability, emphasizing the necessity of treating disabled users as people and the importance of web accessibility. Lastly, this article reviews what I believe are the ten most important guidelines for designing accessible websites.
The Importance of Accessibility
Accessibility has been defined as equality, the degree to which a product, website, or service can be used by people of all abilities. For disabled people, this means not only equal physical access, but access to the same tools, services, facilities, and opportunities as non-disabled people.
Usability, though overlapping with areas of accessibility, has distinctly defined components of its own. Meeting the minimum required accessibility standards on a website does not necessarily mean that the site is usable. For example, forcing a page to automatically refresh (through features like a dynamically updating date/time stamp) renders a page unusable by users of screen readers, because the software frequently “jumps” back to the top of the page (Theofanos and Redish 2003).
It is important to think of people with disabilities as not just “blind people” or “Deaf people.” Such words label someone based on their disability and classify them as people who are not valued members of our society. People with disabilities have lives just like everyone else. They have basic needs, such as a simple ramp for mobility, which is an everyday need for a wheelchair user, much akin to a car.
An individual I interviewed expressed the need and desire to “[be able to use products] all of the time, and not some of the time.” Disabled people want products and services made available and usable to them without a whole lot of fuss on their end. An example of accessible technology that this particular individual praised was the advent of digital assistive and voice recognition technology, such as Siri, which “just worked” right out of the box.
Top 10 Tips for Improving Accessibility
What follows are my top ten tips for improving the accessibility and usability of your business website. I strongly recommend implementing the first six items; otherwise, your business’ services and website will not be accessible to disabled customers. The last four tips are suggestions to further increase the accessibility and usability for those customers. Apply these recommendations not only for your customers, but also for your employees and guests.
1. Begin with an inclusive, universal design process.
Remember: products create the barriers to accessibility, not a person’s individual ability. Consider the blind, Deaf, elderly, or those in a wheelchair, for example, as crucial users from very early in the design. Universal design principles start from the premise that there is no typical, average, or normal user (Horton and Quesenbery 2013).
2. Take a firm stance on accessibility and usability.
Developers might be in denial, become frustrated about implementing accessibility guidelines, or attempt to convince the business that the rules do not apply to them. They might attempt to negotiate by leaving accessibility compliance until the end of the project or doing the bare minimum of accessibility work.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a good place to start, but the business should not accept the minimum Level A Compliance. There is a quick-start WCAG checklist available online at https://webaim.org/standards/wcag/checklist.
3. Write for the Web.
Write short, clear, straightforward sentences in plain, easy-to-understand words. Get to the point quickly by placing the most important words at the top of the page, or at the beginning of links or paragraphs.
Be sure not to sound repetitive when describing links, and avoid using unclear words like “click here.”
4. Make one version accessible to all.
Some companies try to make separate accessible versions of their Web pages and products, but blind people have stated that they would rather just have one version that is accessible to all. Often the text-based version is old and outdated (Theofanos and Redish 2003).
Instead of spending the time and effort to create and maintain two versions of the website, make one version that is usable to everyone.
5. Be sure to properly label images, forms, and links.
Labeling becomes absolutely critical in an online medium. Do not place text on images, because the screen reader will not be able to read it.
Do not include text as part of a fillable field, and ensure that you do not place text between form fields. Instead, always place the label to the left of the form field.
6. Ensure users can interact with elements in multiple ways.
Users might not be able to “see” the link with their eyes, use their hands to move or click the mouse, or use the keyboard. Ensuring proper coding of an interactable element for a keyboard command will help, as multiple accessibility technologies emulate a key press.
A person can use voice to emulate the keyboard. Check to see if your links work with voice commands and are easy to pronounce for people who may have a speech impediment.
7. Design good site structure.
Keep links on the home page to a minimum, using node pages as needed. Ensure each section of your page is clearly delineated so that customers with reading disabilities do not get confused.
Avoid strong colors or images, as they may impact users with various physical and mental disabilities such as ADD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia.
Ensure the most important business functions and systems, including online reservation systems and checkouts, can be easily accessed by all customers.
8. Eliminate the concept of normalcy.
The concepts of “normal” and “common sense” are very exclusive in nature. These words split and categorize people according to attributes like the color of skin, gender, or ability.
9. Keep it simple.
An overly complicated website can be very distracting and difficult for people with disabilities. All readers are raiders. They only want to get to the really meaningful information.
10. Translate language.
For companies with a global customer base, consider manually translating your website into the common languages that your customers speak. Machine-based translations can sometimes be used for less common languages.
Creating an inclusively designed business and website will help you reach all potential customers and maximize your revenue. Following these guidelines and employing them in both the design and implementation of all aspects of your business could lead to greater profits. Accessibility and usability are just good business, and they’re the right thing to do.
Chandrashekar, Sambhavi, and Rachel Benedyk. “Accessibility vs. Usability—Where Is the Dividing Line?” Contemporary Ergonomics (2006): 231–235.
Featherstone, Derek. “Five Stages of Accessibility.” Simply Accessible. 9 January 2015. https://simplyaccessible.com/article/five-stages-of-accessibility/.
Horton, Sarah, and Whitney Quesenbery. A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences. Rosenfeld Media: Brooklyn, NY, 2013.
Theofanos, Mary Frances, and Janice Redish. “Guidelines for Accessible and Usable Web Sites: Observing Users Who Work with Screen Readers.” Interactions 10.6 (2003): 38–51. http://redish.net/images/stories/PDF/InteractionsPaperAuthorsVer.pdf.
SHAUN MARQUARDT (email@example.com) has over 13 years of experience in the field of Information Technology and is currently studying at the University of Washington.