Coding The DNA Of Web Accessibility
In our last blog, we dove into the subject of equal access for grantees with disabilities. We discussed how important it is for grantmaking organizations to ensure their websites and online application process is accessible to anyone, regardless of their disability, to be able to review the eligibility requirements/criteria and complete all the necessary steps to apply.
We decided to dive deeper and speak to someone intimately acquainted with the everyday challenges and frustrations of accessing resources online that people without disabilities may take for granted. We wanted to know what barriers the disabled community were coming up against, and what could be done to remedy the situation.
To get the full story, we sat down with Steve Murgaski, an Accessibility Consultant for SmartSimple’s User Interface and User Experience (UI/UX) team, helping to ensure our platform is accessible to all. Steve has been blind since birth and has worked with libraries, ensuring they are using the latest technology for improving accessibility. Steve also volunteered to work with the blind community in India for several months/years??. “I do whatever I can to make things better for everyone,” he says.
Web accessibility is a major issue for people with disabilities
With the range of assistive technology available for people with visual, auditory, and physical disabilities, you’d think that navigating the web, making online purchases, and accessing resources would be easy for everyone. However, using a computer is still something many people with disabilities struggle with. According to the Office for National Statistics in the UK, in May 2015, 27% of disabled adults had never used the internet, compared to 11% of non-disabled adults.
“People who design websites need to get away from the idea that accessibility is a separate thing. There’s no need to create one site for those who can access everything, and another site for those with special needs,” continues Steve.
“Web forms a good example of this, because the labels on fields may not be in the right place. When someone like me who uses a screen reader, I will presume everything is fine. But it’s not always intuitive where to find things. If the labels on your fields aren’t positioned properly, it can really mess things up for me,” he explains.
The Click-Away Pound Survey, conducted in 2016, was designed to assess the experiences of people with disabilities and find out how much money businesses were losing because their sites aren’t set-up for shoppers with disabilities. In the final report, the survey discovered:
71% of disabled customers with access needs will click away from a website that they find difficult to use.
Those customers who click away have an estimated spending power of £11.75 billion ($15.25B US) in the UK alone, around 10% of the total UK online spend in 2016.
82% of customers with access needs would spend more if websites were more accessible.
Around 6.1 million internet users have impairments that affect the way they use the Internet. Those 6.1 million people will spend £16.55 billion ($21.5B US) online this year.
The report also discovered, “Most businesses will be unaware that they are losing income because more than 90% of customers who have difficulty using a website won’t contact them. Unless businesses actively develop an understanding of accessibility, many will be unaware that the barriers even exist. Yet, it is within the control of website owners to take down the barriers which are actively discouraging disabled and older customers.”
What exactly are some barriers to equitable/inclusive web accessibility?
So what exactly do we mean when we say a website or online form needs to be more accessible? According to the definition offered by the web-access advocacy organization, Internet Society, it’s a belief that the internet is for everyone:
“Persons with disabilities face as many different barriers as there are types and degrees of disability. For example, people with a visual impairment who use screen-reading software may be confronted by websites that have confusing navigation, or that lack description of images; while people with a hearing impairment may be unable to participate in online conferencing because it lacks captioning.”
Unfortunately, websites and forms are often designed to accommodate the reading habits of visual viewers, rather than users that require assistance from screen readers. Here are some examples...
Users without visual impairments scan for important pieces of information based on location, text size, and color. They automatically ignore a box of text on the side of the screen as secondary information.
Those using screen readers listen to the whole page as it is read and they have no indication as to where on the page the text is, the text size, and color of texts
Steve Murgaski continues the point by stating, “often people will focus on what looks good on the screen, so maybe something looks right to a visual viewer is fine but if I use my screen reader, it will tell me there’s a table with some text, but very little information otherwise because of the way it’s been coded.”
Since assistive technologies interpret and navigate content online completely different than what people without visual impairments see, Murgaski points to coding as a source that needs to be changed. “Screen readers are always seeing and interpreting the code; they don’t look at the screen and interpret. If the code doesn’t make sense, the text arrangement won’t make any sense,” says Murgaski.
Murgaski continues that “the best coding follows convention. If you start using it in a way not meant to be used in order to make a visual effect, I hear an interpretation of what the screen reader is ‘hearing’ in the HTML code.”
Code of conduct for web accessibility
Inaccessible online content often stems from web designers and system administrators being daunted by the seemingly complex and overwhelming task of making their content more accommodating for assistive technologies. Yet, accessible content is all in the DNA of its coding.
The path to accessible websites and forms relies heavily on the coding. As Murgaski states, “The differences between accessible and inaccessible are not huge, just a case of proper coding to be used by all.” He continues by stating, “just adding coding that should be used in any case—not just for me—and if you code well, your website also works better in other ways.” The benefits of accessible-minded coding (high color contrast, descriptive links and buttons, compliance with screen-readers, etc), expand not just from accessibility, but stronger SEO, mobile app resizing, and ease of content reading.
Another aspect in integrating accessible practices into the DNA of an organization’s content is through operations and vetting. “Administrators of systems can ask vendors about the accessibility of their solutions and investigate before buying. If you have a procurement protocol with accessibility in mind, you’ll work with software solutions that don’t limit people, no matter who they are.”
A lot of progress made, but a long road ahead
“Big companies are taking it seriously and doing quite a good job,” says Murgaski. “Google Sheets has done a lot of work to make it accessible and it actually works very well. Microsoft took a different approach and has a disability help desk, so if you’re having a problem with an accessible product, they take control of your computer and do it for you. This is not an ideal solution because we do not want to have to call a help desk, but they’re taking it seriously.”
There is much work to be done when it comes to making websites and forms accessible for everyone. And a direct path to improving the accessibility of your content and resources on the web is through a combination of good coding, good SEO conventions, and surveying from the people who are most affected.
Our next blog in this series on accessibility will lay out the specific foundations of creating an accessible web form.