Accessibility is a broad term. It’s important to note that when we talk about digital accessibility, this term extends to socio-economic or geographic factors. For example, inability to afford equipment or accessibility to internet access in rural areas where providers are scarce.
Once a user logs on, however, web developers have almost total control over that user’s experience. This includes users who navigate the internet differently than neurotypical, able-bodied users for whom web experiences are typically designed first and foremost.
Neuro-atypical or differently-abled users can’t be lumped together into only one category. It does these individuals no good when we define site visitors as “those who navigate the page just fine” and “everyone else.” Because of that oversimplification, accessibility practices often exist in web development as an obligation or formality. They only appear because it’s required, or to score social brownie points. In an ideal world, accessibility would be considered from the get go, factoring in as many kinds of users as possible into the design from the ground-up.
A NEW PERspective
While Mediocre is not the leading example in accessibility efforts, we use digital empathy as fuel for our research and implementation of accessibility best-practices. Personally, I’m a relatively able-bodied person. I don’t seek assistive technology to navigate the internet. In order to get a better understanding of what it’s like, I reached out to a colleague.
He’s young, with 20/300 vision in his left eye and 20/700 in his right. His conditions include Retinopathy of Prematurity, cataracts, and nystagmus, which inhibits his eyes from focusing for long periods of time.
He’s very active on social media, and we DM back and forth on a regular basis. His posts aren’t any different from yours or mine—standard selfies, videos of the friend group hanging out (pre-COVID, at least), and so many cat pictures. I asked him what websites do that make it tough or impossible for someone with his ability to use. I also asked for an example of the opposite: a website with better-than-average accessibility options.
Here’s what he said:
Facebook is one of the ones with less-than-favorable accessibility options. I stopped using it on PC for that very reason. As well as news sites, mainly the smaller, local news websites. I stay away from them because they’re so hard to concentrate on. Sites with a lot of ads, too. I get the purpose, but it’s so distracting and causes my nystagmus to keep me from focusing on what I want to read!
The accessibility of Twitter is so nice, especially with the inclusion of a dark mode, I concentrate much better when I can invert colors. I often use a magnifier program to help me read things, and for the most part, most websites are fine if I’m using that.
If I somehow don’t have access to a magnifier program, I stick to sites like Twitter or Youtube, or larger news websites (that have better accessibility options) for my reading.
Even as a person with decent vision, these digital accessibility solutions were familiar to me. Dark modes help me ease eye strain. I also get confused or irritated trying to navigate websites bogged down with ads. I zoom in if a text size is below my threshold of comfortable readability. It just so happens that my friend has a higher threshold he has to meet.
ONE for all
These simple solutions convince me that accessibility practices are more than a formality we extend to differently-abled individuals. Though my personal well-being doesn’t depend on the presence of closed-captioning, ramps, seizure warnings, and elevators, myself and other able-bodied people all benefit from their use. A ramp with a handrail is the safest and most accessible analog means of ascension when considering all ability ranges, and it is still very easy to use by people without disabilities. So are all of these tools, should we opt for them.
For designers or developers looking for resources, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) provides the most reliable source. At Mediocre, we use their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 as a guidebook. It’s exhaustive, but in general, accessible websites follow these best-practices:
- Provide accurate closed captioning or transcripts of audio, for those with low or no hearing.
- Write brief but descriptive Alternate Text in addition to images for low-vision users navigating with a screen reader.
- Ensure the contrast between text and background colors is stark enough to provide visibility for low-vision or colorblind users.
While we prioritize the inclusion of these practices in our workflow, it still requires buy-in from clients to include. Not all the sites we build afford accessible experiences on the level we prefer to see. We push clients to keep improving along with us, as often as is feasible.
…and For everyday
Though web development is where Mediocre applies this knowledge, individual users also contribute to accessibility on their own timelines. It’s more and more commonplace to see individual users add closed captioning to their TikToks or YouTube content. We also see it in corporate ads on social media.
Another positive trend is content warnings on social media posts. Many users begin posts with ‘cw:’ and a content warning for the benefit of users with trauma or PTSD triggers.
Small, considerate acts like these not only increase the level of digital accessibility, but also make the wild west atmosphere of the internet feel a little more empathetic.