EXCLUSIVE: Ensuring digital accessibility for all
Shaun Foreman, Principal Program Manager of Accessibility at Applause, discusses some of the most common flaws in digital experiences with regard to accessibility, and the critical importance of carrying out inclusive testing of websites with disabled people.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 15 percent of the world’s population lives with a disability of some description – and that number is rising.
However, more than 97 percent of the pages evaluated by WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind) in 2021 were found to have WCAG 2 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) failures.
It’s not as if web designers and engineers aren’t concerned about digital accessibility. In a recent survey examining the extent to which companies prioritise accessibility when developing their digital experience – 43 percent of respondents rated it as a top priority, with another 36 percent saying it was important for their business. In fact, two thirds of respondents agreed that digital accessibility is a higher priority for their organisations this year than it was last year.
The issue is that many organisations don’t have the in-house expertise and resources they need to build high-quality, fully accessible digital experiences. Ensuring their products are accessible and inclusive to the greatest number of current and future users requires ongoing inclusivity testing, ideally conducted with regular input from people with disabilities. Only by engaging with real users of their products can organisations truly understand how those products will perform in the real world.
Compliance and business benefits
The concept of digital accessibility concerns the ability with which websites, mobile apps, or electronic documents can be easily navigated and understood by the broadest range of users, including those living with disabilities such as blindness, low vision, auditory challenges, mobility challenges, and neurodiversity.
Overwhelmingly, the most common flaw in digital experiences with regard to accessibility is screen readers working incorrectly. An example of this would be when a person with blindness is attempting to complete a form to create an online account but hits a roadblock when button text is missing, and the screen reader cannot help the person discern what the button says, or how to navigate through the rest of the process.
Other common accessibility flaws include poor colour use, which excludes people from seeing or understanding text or instructions properly, videos missing closed captions or audio descriptions, issues with keyboard navigation, and poor user experiences with zooming to increase text size.
Many organisations, of course, recognise that neglecting accessibility can result in legal risks. But full digital accessibility offers additional business benefits beyond risk mitigation. Back-end coding that supports accessible design can boost search engine optimisation, for instance, and can generally improve the experience for all users, not just those with disabilities. Indeed, according to the survey, the top three motivators for achieving accessibility compliance were “improving usability for all end users”, “building positive public perception”, and “gaining and maintaining market share”.
Despite this, though, fewer than three in 10 organisations’ websites actually meet WCAG 2.1 standards and, of those that do, only 14 percent meet the highest level. As a best practice, then, companies should prioritise inclusive design to create seamless – and compliant – experiences for all users.
Real-world inclusive testing
Web designers can sometimes be isolated, working in silos. It’s unrealistic to expect them to be able to design a high-quality product for people about whose lived experience they know very little.
Ongoing inclusive testing is, therefore, critical to ensuring every step of a product pathway is fully accessible to all users. A human-centric approach to software development, inclusive design is about much more than simply adhering to accessibility guidelines. It includes all aspects that could affect a person’s ability to use a product or service, whether digital or physical.
However, two in five respondents to the above-mentioned survey said they have either limited or no in-house expertise or resources to test for accessibility on an ongoing basis without external help. Meanwhile, 30 percent said that, while they have some expertise, they could use more.
There’s a clear need, then, for organisations to carry out inclusive testing with real people, including people with disabilities. Only by consulting with real users and asking them to test its apps, web pages, and devices can a company be confident that its products are as accessible as they should be.
Additionally, bringing in people with disabilities to offer training to an organisation’s designers and engineers, and pointing out the struggles they face in using certain apps and websites, can pay dividends in helping to ensure more inclusive design.
Whether it’s to minimise the risk of regulatory non-compliance, for greater business benefits, or purely from a stance of empathy, organisations shouldn’t underestimate the importance of usability and accessibility in their products.
Every website, application, and device should provide an inclusive experience for everyone, regardless of ability. Ensuring this inclusivity needs to begin at the design stage and continue through ongoing real-world testing, in which real feedback is gathered from real people with disabilities.