In today’s world of technology, there’s no denying the need for accessibility in all its forms. So how can we get there? To help answer this question, we spoke with Aaron Gustafson, instructor of Gymnasium’s free Modern Web Design course and Principal Strategist on Microsoft’s Accessibility Innovation Team.
In addition to leading the AI for Accessibility grant program, which works to improve independence for those with disabilities by funding the development of new assistive technologies, Gustafson works to identify and invest in technological advancements that improve access for everyone across the board.
But before we dive into the process of improving user experiences for all, it’s crucial to define and understand the scope of accessibility.
In the realm of digital technology, the term “accessibility” is used to describe the extent to which the devices, systems, and tools we use to work and communicate are usable for all. More specifically, the W3C states in the latest edition of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines that all web content should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for every user.
“When I first learned about accessibility, I only thought of it as making the web usable to people with screen readers… but I’ve come to understand how broad accessibility truly is,” Gustafson said. “To me, accessibility is doing everything we can to remove the barriers that prohibit people from being able to meaningfully participate and thrive in the world.”
According to CDC data, 15% of the world’s population has a disability, and of those affected by disability in the U.S., 5% are blind or visually impaired while 6% are deaf or hearing impaired. It’s important to recognize that these numbers are likely much higher in reality, as many who live with a disability don’t self-identify as such.
Designers and developers take these differing experiences and capabilities into account when creating accessibility-focused features, which can be as simple as the ability to zoom in on a portion of text or as complex as text-to-speech software that dictates the content of images and videos. No matter the objective, their overarching goal is to ensure universal access regardless of user abilities.
In addition to the W3C guidelines, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires websites, mobile apps, and other types of software and digital content to be accessible for all. Despite the mandate, some of the world’s most renowned tech companies continue to underestimate the need for accessibility. For example, Twitter recently launched a Voice Tweets feature without captions. The problem doesn’t end with the big names, either: 96.8% of all home pages have at least one accessibility error. As a starting point, brands and businesses need to become more aware of accessibility needs within their customer base.
“Ultimately, the issue is awareness,” Gustafson explained. “The vast majority of web folks don’t understand the importance of accessibility because even the most basic level of testing isn’t even on their radar.”
So how can we raise consciousness and make accessibility a core tenant of development and design?
“Better education in business schools, computer science and design programs, and developer bootcamps would go a long way,” Gustafson said. “Societal awareness is another big factor. This is why it’s so important to see people with disabilities accurately represented in media, like television and movies… I think most people, once aware of the barriers they’re erecting, will want to change the ways they do business, design, program, and generally conduct their lives to ensure more people are included.”
Although there are many ways to work towards accessibility in tech, one popular strategy among larger companies is the use of Accessibility Overlays. This software is designed to automatically detect and fix accessibility problems at a mass scale using artificial intelligence. While the idea of an instant solution is appealing, its effectiveness pales in comparison to in-depth individualized fixes.
“It’s akin to a home renovation in which you see that there’s a big hole in the wall and, rather than properly replace and mud in a fresh piece of drywall, you just wallpaper over it,” said Gustafson. “Adding an overlay does not solve your website’s fundamental accessibility problems. Those problems are a result of the non-inclusive business, design, and development processes. We should be thinking about how to build inclusive products from the jump.”
Rather than taking the easy way out, Gustafson recommends that companies invest in new tools and training for their teams on how to diagnose and remediate specific accessibility issues. There are a number of valuable free resources available, including browser plugin Accessibility Insights, which is able to diagnose problems such as color contrast and missing labels that can be detected programmatically. Whether you start small or go big, this investment in your team will make them “aware of the ways they erect barriers to accessibility so they naturally avoid making those mistakes.”
“Accessibility work is important and has a tremendous impact on our society. Designing and building accessible experiences ensures our products and services can reach more people, which also impacts a company’s bottom line,” said Gustafson. “Whether you want to look at it from the altruistic perspective of working to empower your fellow human beings or you want to focus on the success of your business, accessibility is something you should be investing in.”
Inspired to take the next step towards ensuring accessibility for all? Gymnasium’s Accessibility Content Collection is chock-full of courses, tutorials, webinars, and articles to get you up to speed on web standards, best practices, and guidelines. To learn more about the world of accessibility and web design from Aaron Gustafson, register for his free Gymnasium course, Modern Web Design.