What is Digital Accessibility?
The short definition: Digital accessibility means that digital resources (websites, videos, documents, etc.) can be used by people with disabilities. These disabilities may range from auditory or visual to cognitive or physical/motor.
One of the great aspects of the internet is how it can improve access for people with disabilities. For example, blind or low-vision people can use screen readers to receive content audibly or through refreshable braille displays, and people with motor disabilities (who may not be able to navigate with a mouse) can use assistive devices like mouth wands or alternative keyboards.
Unfortunately, the web's great potential for people with disabilities remains largely unrealized. Projects like the WebAIM Million or PopeTech's Higher Ed in 4k reveal many accessibility errors in commonly used websites.
Based on the above definition, it is easy to get the impression that accessibility is only for people with disabilities. While people with disabilities are actually a large percentage of the population, they are not the only ones to benefit from accessible design. As a matter of fact, accessible design improves access and content for everyone.
A few examples of people who particularly benefit from various accessibility guidelines include:
- A person using a phone or other mobile device with a small screen. (For those familiar with the term, responsive design typically goes hand-in-hand with accessibility.)
- A person with low or slow internet.
- A person with a temporary disability, like a broken arm or missing glasses.
- A person with situation limitations, such as a noisy background or need for quiet.
Why is Digital Accessibility Important?
- A lot of people have disabilities.
- Access to information and communications technologies, including the Web, is defined as a basic human right in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
- Digital/web accessibility is required by law in many situations.
- Digital accessibility is good for business.
One of the best ways to realize why designing with accessibility in mind is to experience it for yourself.
Accessible Design vs. Universal Design
You may have heard both the terms "accessible design" and "universal design" (and possibly "inclusive design," as well). Some people define accessible design as designing content specifically for people for disabilities, and universal design as designing content for as wide and varied an audience as possible (which would, of course, include people with disabilities). Having multiple terms like this is honestly more confusing than it is helpful. Obviously it is important to design content for as wide and varied an audience as possible. However, it is also essential to specifically consider people with disabilities when doing this, as it will otherwise be easy to inadvertently create inaccessible content.
Accessibility and You: Things to Keep in Mind
- You do not have to be an expert to create accessible content. While this guide may seem overwhelming, the goal is to provide you all the information you might want to reference. In other words, you do not have to know everything.
- Some accessibility is better than no accessibility. If you have inaccessible content, remember that even fixing one or two issues can make a big difference. You don't have to do everything at once.
- Accessible does not mean boring. You can have accessible tables, charts, image galleries, sidebars, and so much more. Some of these may require additional consideration or work, but there are resources to help you.
- Plan for accessibility from the beginning. It is much easier to make content accessible to start with than to go back and try to fix inaccessible content. (Bonus: This also helps prevent expensive lawsuits.)
- Except for very specific circumstances, do not try to create "separate but equal" accessible alternatives. These are rarely truly equal (i.e. rarely provide a truly equivalent experience), typically require users to start on an inaccessible site in order to access the alternative, and are a lot more work, since you have to keep up with two versions of your content. It is entirely possible to build accessibility features into your normal content.
- Avoid accessibility overlays. These may sound appealing, but they are not accessible.
- You may not always know that someone who is using or needs to use your website or content has a disability. There are many reasons this may be the case, but the primary takeaway here should be to assume that people with disabilities will want to access your content and to make it accessible from the start.
- There isn't one simple checklist you can use to ensure accessibility. Part of this is because technology, knowledge, and standards change. Some standards may not include everything they should. Some accessibility features can make content less accessible if used incorrectly. And many aspects of accessibility, like alternative text, are highly context-dependent.
- It is not the end of the world if you do what you can and still (unknowingly) end up with content that is inaccessible. Make sure that it is easy for users to let you know if they run into any accessibility issues (and that you fix these issues when they are brought to your attention). The vast majority of people with disabilities will deeply appreciate your efforts.