Ashley Sheridan​.co.uk

Blind to Accessibility

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When I first started learning about accessibility, I figured it was just enough to use alt attribute text on images, and use semantic tags. Like the Greek philosopher Socrates once said though:

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing

My folly, shared by many developers, was to simply assume that accessibility was just something that applied to blind people, but don’t we all start as naive young (mostly!) developers?

The Bigger Picture

Disabilities go far beyond eyesight problems:

That’s by no means an exhaustive list, but it opens up a lot of potential traps to catch the unwary developer out. To muddy the waters further, consider the above issues to be part of one large Venn diagram. Each disability overlaps and combines with another, with two others, with all of them. What a Venn doesn’t show is the scale of the issue, it doesn’t show how many people suffer from both audio and visual problems, it doesn’t show how many old people have learning difficulties. I’m not even aware of an up-to-date list even in the UK that tracks all of this information and breaks it down like that, and we keep some pretty good records!

Venn diagram showing the crossover of disabilities

The Able Bubble

One of the main issues in the industry that prevents a lot of developers from seeing how great the accessibility issue is, is that most of us are in an effective accessible bubble. In many years of working in development houses and media companies, one thing that strikes me is the low number of co-workers with obvious disabilities (by obvious I mean ones that can’t be seen after immediately meeting someone). Putting aside the question about why this is (it’s a big question that deserves a post of its own, but one I don’t think I’m qualified to answer or even investigate as it deserves) it should be obvious that we’re not all working in a workplace that accurately represents the populace. That bubble blinds us to an extent, preventing us from understanding the problems that real people have with the very things we create.

The Way Out of the Rabbit Hole

So what can we, as responsible developers, do about this situation we find ourselves in?

Firstly, never stop learning. While the disabilities remain the same, technology moves at an ever increasing pace. Read up on accessibility issues, follow posts from bloggers who make this subject their speciality, and put into practice what you’ve learned.

As far as quick-wins are concerned, the following steps can help:

  1. Think about your content. Is the language complicated? Does it need to be? If you have a blog on the technical details of keeping aircraft aloft, chances are it needs to be a bit technical, but if your blog is about your favourite Disney character, you can probable make the content simpler and more accessible. Run the content through a readability checker. There are many types to choose from, have a look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Readability#The_Flesch_formulas for information on the options.
  2. Adopt a content-first approach. Content is important, and should be at the centre of your entire design and development process. If your designs are full of Lorem Ipsum, then guesses are being made about your content. Guesses are great, and might be right, but they might be wrong. Get that content in early.
  3. Use semantic markup. Forget what things need to look like for a second, write markup that makes sense first. CSS lets you style almost any HTML element to look the way you want, so don’t be tempted to just make everything a
    tag.
  4. Run the basic automated tests against your website; these will check for things like colour contrast, and pick up things like missing alt text on images, etc.
  5. Try navigating your site using alternate methods. Can you navigate entirely with a keyboard? If you can’t, then chances are, some types of screen readers can’t too.
  6. Pay special attention to where the focus is when modals and lightboxes are displayed. This in particular can catch out a lot of people.

Don’t consider these points as all you need to do, treat them as a basic list only. Just remember, however able-bodied you might be (or not) there is always somebody out there who’s experiencing your work far differently than you might have imagined.