Accessibility Myths And Misconceptions
In the week following Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) the Accessiblity London group asked:
What are your most commonly encountered accessibility myths or misconceptions?— Accessibility London (@A11yLondon) May 19, 2020
The question was asked in about half a dozen languages, and there were a lot of great answers, but the same few kept repeating. Many of them were things I've heard in my career as a developer, especially in media agencies which do seem to have a tendency to focus on visuals over accessibility. Among the answers, these are the ones that came up often:
- Accessibility is just for blind people
- We just need to add
alttext to images and then we're done
- Accessibility is too hard to implement
- Accessibility is too expensive to implement
- That's something the developer needs to handle, it's not for us [designers]
- If we make it accessible we have to sacrifice on our lovely designs
- Only a small proportion of our users have accessibility needs
- Our website sells cars, it doesn't need to be accessible to people using screen readers
- We scored 100% on Lighthouse/Axe/etc, so we are already fully accessible
- It's optional, we don't actually need to do it
- We can do it later, the deadline doesn't allow us any time to make this accessible right now
- We're using an accessibility overlay plugin, that makes it compliant
- We were tested last year, it passed, so we don't need to do anything now
I've grouped up some of the replies and I'll attempt to counter the misconceptions behind each.
Accessibility is Only for Blind People; They Don't Use My Website
This is one of the more popular things I've heard over the years, and judging from the Twitter thread, I'm not alone. The real scope of accessibility encompasses far more problems that a person might have:
- Using only colours to indicate something (e.g. a traffic light colour system to show online status) can mean people suffering from some types of colour blindness will be unable to use that feature
- Missing video captions means a deaf person cannot view them
- Tiny buttons and links can mean that people who struggle with a mouse are unable to use your website
- Over using distracting animations can cause major attention problems for people who already struggle with focus
These Changes Won't Help Many People
Further to this, a lot of people believe that the number of users that would benefit from accessibility improvements is too small, or that the content on their website isn't aimed at that audience (I've heard the latter directly from a website selling luxury cars!)
According to the Purple Pound more than 1 in 5 of us have a disability, and businesses are losing out on a potential £2 billion. Does a fifth of our user base sound like a small audience size? That figure also doesn't even take into consideration those people who have a temporary disability, like a broken wrist or eye dilation before an eye exam.
Then when you also take into consideration that the drop curb effect means that actually a lot of accessibility improvements benefit everyone, you end up with a situatuation where implementing these changes becomes a zero sum question.
Underestimating/Overestimating the Work
Following on from the previous misconception, one other that often gets voiced is that it's simply enough to add
alt text to every image, as that's the only part that a screen reader can't see. This seems to be a particularly common view held by those creating HTML emails. There are many more things to consider, such as good colour contrast, keyboard access, sizes of elements, and use of animation.
On the flip side of this, I've heard plenty of people look at the task of making an existing website more accessible, and see it as a Sisyphean task that would go on for too long. While it's true to say that you can never make something perfectly accessible to all people, this shouldn't mean it's a task that you shouldn't undertake.
If thinking about accessibility becomes part of your process, then it won't take much (if any) more time/work. The part that does take time is learning how to think about accessibility. There are countless great resources for everyone to learn about that, however. These blog posts, articles, demos, and examples will help you understand the people, their problems, and the possible solutions. I write quite a few myself on a variety of topics, and link out to many more, but if you're new to accessibility, then 10 Simple Steps Towards Accessibility would be a good place to start.
It's Already Accessible: I'm Using a Plugin
A lot of people see accessibility as something that's fully quantifiable; your website is either accessible or it's not. The truth is, automated testing only gives you an idea of things you might be doing wrong, they can't guarantee that you're doing everything right. There's a great article by Manuel Matuzovic where he creates the most inaccessible site possible with a perfect Lighthouse score as a reminder that we shouldn't blindly chase automated test scores. Scoring high is great, but it shouldn't be our end goal.
Instead, accessibility should be a part of your process, in the same way that design and UX is. With everything you remove, add, or modify on your website, you should be making accessibility a part of this:
- The feature you removed, does this now stop some people from performing that specific action on your website entirely?
- That new thing you added, can it be used with only a keyboard, or by someone who is deaf?
- When you changed feature xyz on your website, did you check that you didn't break it for users with different needs?
This leads on to the next misconception quite well: if your website has already had a full accessibility audit, that doesn't mean it remains accessibile forever. Virtually no websites today remain static, they're constantly being updated, having new content added. Unless these changes are audited or tested in some way, there's no guarantee that they remain as accessible as the rest of your site was.
Also, technology changes over time. Web browsers gain features, screen readers change how they present content. Sometimes these changes have an affect on how people percieve your website. For example, the recent changes of many operating systems to introduce dark or high contrast modes means that a lot of websites are now breaking for some people in unforeeen ways. We can't rely on any audit result being valid for any prolonged length of time. But if it's part of our process, then we can say with 100% certainty that we're thinking about the people using our websites and products, and that we're trying to make it work for them.
Website Accessibility Overlays
I couldn't end this section without addressing the big elephant in the room: accessibility overlay plugins. Adrian Roselli has a lot to say about these types of plugins and mentions some of the problems they cause and the legal cases being brought against websites relying on these plugins to protect them against this very thing.
So if these plugins don't protect your business, and they actually cause more problems for some people, are they actually worth it? I'm not a lawyer, but surely fixing the real underlying issues and making accessible development and testing part of your process is far better and offers more legal protection.
It's Not My Job
One thing I mentioned in the last section was a tendency to want to rely on third party plugins to do the hard work. Sometimes this comes from well-meaning people who don't understand the issue but want to do the right thing, but some few times it's because there's a feeling that it's a job for someone else. I've heard this sentiment before from content managers who felt that the accessibility was something for the designers and developers to manage. Then I've heard the same from designers who felt that accessibility was a code thing, and didn't fall under their remit.
The fact is, that the task belongs to all stakeholders. Developers need to ensure their code meets the WCAG spec, designers need to be aware of their use of colour and sizes of page elements, content creators need to pay mind to their use of language, project managers must ensure a consistent style and theme across the entire thing, QA teams need to test with a variety of methods to verify the end result.
But Accessibility Breaks My Designs
An accessible design doesn't mean an ugly design. As Deque Systems notes, limitations in technology is the cause for the ugly design myth. While it is true that things like good colour contrast and larger interfaces have an effect on the design, this doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as ugly. In-fact, if a design is relying on low contrast, or very small functional elements, then there is a higher possibility that the design itself is already bad, and will pose problems for everyone, regardless of ability.
We Can Fix It Later; It's Optional For Now
Deadlines are an inescapable fact of life for many things, building websites and maintaining them is no exception, especially if that's how you make your living. These deadlines shouldn't be an excuse for omitting accessibility from the things you produce though.
The real truth is that in many countries of the world, accessibility isn't optional, it's a legal requirement, and can come with hefty fines. Along with our moral obligation, and the clear business case (the potential £2 billion lost revenue I mentioned previously), can we really afford not to address accessibility right at the beginning?
As I also mentioned previously, if we make accessibility part of our process, it won't take much, if any, more time to implement. Admittedly, it can take a little bit longer initially, especially if the process and methods are unfamiliar. The industry is forever changing though, and we are already used to adapting our approach and learning new things in order to remain relevant in an ever changing landscape. Many of us will remember a time when Chrome didn't exist, when browsing on mobile phones wasn't possible, when we still used tables for layout. But as technology improved and changed, we progressed with it. The same argument is easily made for accessibility; if you don't know about it, or how to make it part of your process, you need to start as soon as you can.
As you can see, most of the myths and misconceptions behind accessibility are just that, and even those few that do have some modicum of truth are still largely outdated or misguided. Don't let any of these misconceptions deter you from making your websites accessible, or from just learning how to go about doing that.