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Accessibility-first mindset needed to make tech design equitable

21 June 2022 at 3:43 pm
Danielle Kutchel
“The more you think about it earlier on, the less you end up in a situation where you have built a whole experience and realised that there's a huge subset of your users that just can't access it all.”

Danielle Kutchel | 21 June 2022 at 3:43 pm


Accessibility-first mindset needed to make tech design equitable
21 June 2022 at 3:43 pm

“The more you think about it earlier on, the less you end up in a situation where you have built a whole experience and realised that there’s a huge subset of your users that just can’t access it all.”

Accessibility and inclusion is often front of mind in design these days: think wheelchair ramps and accessible doors, for example. But when it comes to technology, some places are behind in the inclusion revolution.

That needs to change, according to Kathryn Grayson Nanz, developer advocate at software company Progress. She says tech designers should enter all projects with an accessibility-first mindset for the benefit of all users.

Nanz said she has seen a wide range of accessibility levels across the tech sector. She told Pro Bono News she is optimistic that tech designers are beginning to realise how crucial accessibility is.

In her home country of the US, she said members of the public have levelled lawsuits at companies that don’t have websites that are accessible to people with disability.

“It’s quickly becoming something that software companies are aware of and have to start taking more seriously,” she said.

Barriers hold companies back

Cost can be a factor in accessible tech design, with some organisations hoping to cut corners by getting a project done as quickly and cheaply as possible – but that’s not necessarily how to create an accessible product. Instead, accessibility should be considered right from the outset of any project.

“If we’re thinking about building inexpensively and that’s our primary focus, it’s really hard, almost impossible sometimes, to go back in and try to add in accessibility features afterwards. You’re setting yourself up for a really bad time,” Nanz explained.

“But if you can shift that and start thinking from ‘How can we make this as accessible as possible’, and that’s actually your primary version… that makes it a lot easier. You don’t have to try and retrofit accessibility into a piece of software that you’ve already launched.”

There are some features that Nanz said should be included as a minimum in order to make websites and apps accessible for people with disability.

Contrast ratios on text and background colours should be checked for legibility, being able to navigate a website without using the mouse, and ensuring that appropriate HTML tags are used so that screen readers can parse each page are some of the biggest examples.

And while that all sounds technical, designing an accessible website or app can be simpler than you might think.

Nanz said many popular content management systems – think WordPress or Squarespace – have accessibility built into the HTML tags of their drag-and-drop functionality. From there, not-for-profit organisations will just need to consider things like the colours they’re choosing and adding alt-text themselves. This can be done even if you’re not the person who built the software.

For those organisations that have hired a tech guru to make their website and app dreams happen, Nanz recommended ensuring that they are built to the highest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which break down what to do to make your website as accessible as possible.

WCAG standards are regularly updated to reflect new technology and new capabilities and changes in software language.

For those with the budget to spend, there are software programs available that will assess your website’s accessibility as it is built.

But most important is changing the mindset from accessibility-last, to accessibility-first.

“When we’re taking that accessibility first mindset, it means we’re making those checks and we’re testing those things as we go so we can catch them and fix them and incorporate them and keep moving and building on top of them, rather than building a foundation that’s shaky and then trying to scale on top of that,” Nanz said.

“The more you think about it earlier on, the less you end up in a situation where you have built a whole experience and realised that there’s a huge subset of your users that just can’t access it all.”

Innovations drive accessibility

Nanz said internet technology and software development had come a long way in a short amount of time – but some tech companies were stuck in a time when accessibility wasn’t as well known, and therefore wasn’t built into their product.

Nanz believes Twitter is a good example of accessibility done right, with the social app recently rolling out alt text for all users.

“I think stuff like that where we’re just kind of lowering the difficulty level of making things accessible, especially on sites like that, where users are generating so much of the content – that’s really great to see,” Nanz said.

At the same time, she feels there has been a shift in user attitude too: one example is people becoming more aware of the way that certain characters or emojis appear on screen readers. With conversations on accessibility spreading offline, the online world is following suit.

Nanz said the accessibility-first approach is similar to the mobile-first approach that swept the web and app design worlds a few years ago.

Back then, designers suddenly realised they had to consider a different perspective when creating websites and apps, as their products now needed to be readable on a mobile device.

“There had to be a kind of shift where we thought about how things would look on the smallest screen… and then work out from there. It’s almost always easier to do that and to grow, than to try and take a whole bunch of information and shrink it down. And accessibility first is the same idea,” Nanz said.

Of course, when thinking about accessibility, Nanz said it’s important to realise that some disabilities aren’t as noticeable, or permanent, as others. From those who wear glasses to correct their vision, to people who break their arm and have to navigate the computer differently for a few weeks, disability takes a variety of forms.

Non-disabled people can also reap the benefits of a more accessible website; for example, Nanz said, a mother with a baby in one arm, who has to type with one hand. 

With growing awareness of the importance of accessibility and inclusion, Nanz said it’s likely we’ll see an increase in accessible websites and apps as time goes on.

Assistive technology itself is also coming a long way, and Nanz expects that this will continue to become an intuitive part of people’s daily lives – much like voice-activated commands in cars, for example.

“I think we’ll start to see a lot more things in that middle zone that are benefiting everyone on all sides of the spectrum, and we’ll feel it more intuitively built into the products that we use. That’s my hope,” she said.


Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting.

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