What Is Accessibility?
The first thing people often think about when hearing the word ‘accessibility’ is disability, but everyone can experience accessibility barriers when the environment doesn’t meet their needs.
According to the social model of disability, disability is the product of societal factors, such as systemic and attitudinal barriers. If you remove the obstacles, you enable the individual. Not all people with disabilities subscribe to solely taking the social model perspective. Many people who live with visible or invisible disabilities strongly identify with disability culture and disability as a feature of their identity. When practicing inclusive design it’s important to keep in mind the historical erasure of the voices of people with disabilities from defining their own narrative.
The saying ‘nothing about us without us’ used by disability rights activists and other marginalized groups emphasizes the importance of including their voices in any kind of decision making that would impact their lives.
That said, the social model of disability is useful as a design lens because if we frame disability as a product of the environment, we can address accessibility challenges through better, more inclusive, design.
We are better at removing certain barriers than others, not just in terms of technology but also the attitudes around it. For example, glasses are a type of assistive technology (AT). Although some people need them to function, they often don’t consider themselves as having a disability (some do) because glasses are readily available, fashionable, and desirable. Have you ever seen someone wear glasses with non-prescription lenses just because they liked the look? Now imagine a scenario where personal mobility devices are designed in a way that makes them desirable to everyone, like futuristic personal luxury automobiles. If that were the case, we probably wouldn’t use stick figures in wheelchairs as a symbol for accessibility.
One way to look at disability is as a mismatch between the person and their environment. The experience of the mismatch can be permanent, temporary, or situational.
Discover the Benefits of Inclusive Design
You’ll discover that designing to address mismatches has added benefits, especially when you focus on the barrier experience rather than the conditions. It’s not just accessible design, but also inclusive design that takes into account a broad spectrum of experiences and needs.
If you design a product, such as a voice-activated speaker, people with limited hand mobility and those who are multi-tasking (cooking, driving), can also use it. It is called the curb-cut effect.
There are many other examples of curb-cut effects, including voice assistants like Siri, typewriters, and even electric toothbrushes. You can also find curb-cut benefits of accessible design on the web. Legible, high-contrast text is easier to see on small screens and in harsh lighting conditions. Content that reflows and responds well to increased text size is more responsive across different devices. Closed captions allow users to watch videos in noisy or quiet environments. When designed accessibly, websites are often more usable for everyone.
Learn How Individuals Use Assistive Features and Technologies on the Web
One of the benefits of the curb-cut effect is that it encourages the broad adoption of technology, making it more readily available and affordable. Voice control software used to be extremely expensive, but now it is built into nearly all computers and smartphones. The realization that everyone can benefit from assistive features and their integration into mainstream products means people can use many personalization features to bridge accessibility barriers. Where these features can't bridge the barrier, people can rely on assistive technologies.
There are different categories of assistive features and technologies. However, in this chapter, I will focus on two that are most relevant to digital products and web accessibility: alternative output and alternative input.
Visual modifications can be as simple as changing the size or color of the content on your screen. Personalization features such as high contrast and inverted colors can help users with low visual acuity and light sensitivities. Alternative color schemes can help those with color blindness by increasing the differences between colors.
When people are unable to perceive visual information with modifications, screen readers and braille displays can output into other modalities. Screen readers convert information into sound and braille displays into tactile information.
It’s possible to change how users interact with devices by changing how they receive input. For example, users who experience tremors may hit keys unintentionally, so they can change the key speed and hold duration, which adjusts how long a key needs to be pressed to be registered. Sticky keys can be turned on to execute operations that require people to press several keys simultaneously (such as ctrl+z to delete, or ctrl+alt+delete to force quit applications) one key at a time.
When it comes to assistive technologies, there are many types of switches that can be used depending on the person’s abilities. Switches are an entire family of devices that include everything from a single button that can be pressed or even hovered over to sip-and-puff mechanisms (the user breathes into a straw to control a device). People can also use head tracking, eye gaze, and voice control as alternatives to the keyboard and mouse. Most of these technologies rely on sequential scanning of all of the interactive elements on the screen. Once the user reaches the control they want to interact with, they can activate it with their alternative navigation device.
Exercise: Explore Accessibility Preferences Yourself!
Go to your mobile settings menu and find the accessibility settings. Play around with the available features. Are there any settings you’re not already using that could be useful to you? If you’re on a conference call, using visual notifications could be less disruptive than vibrate mode. High contrast or reverse colors can be easier on the eyes in the dark, and setting your phone to black and white can make it less appealing if you’re looking to cut down on screen time. Can you find any other curb-cut benefits?
Everybody experiences accessibility barriers when products, services, or the environment don’t match their needs.
Inclusive design considers the full range of human diversity concerning ability, age, gender, race, and any other form of human difference.
When you design inclusively, you often create curb-cut effects, which benefit everyone!
People use a wide variety of personalization features and assistive technologies (ATs) to interact with digital content in a way that meets their needs.
Alternative control and alternative display are two broad categories of features and ATs that are important for digital accessibility.
Now that you have an understanding of how people experience digital accessibility barriers, let’s have a look at the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.