Web accessibility means producing stuff for the web – pages, applications, electronic documents, multimedia – that works for everyone, including people with disabilities. The last part of that statement usually merits the most discussion, because while web professionals are programmed to think about different browsers and devices, it’s less often that we’ve been taught to think about the diversity of people who visit our sites.
Accessibility vs. Usability
Web accessibility starts with understanding how people use our sites within the context of their abilities. That’s close to definitions you might see for usability, because the two are very similar. Web accessibility is really just a faucet of usability that’s been set apart because traditionally, the focus of web accessibility was on accommodations for people with specific disabilities. That’s not the case so much anymore, because we’re starting to understand how many accessibility features benefit people of all levels of ability, not just a particular group. Consequently, many such features have simply become best practices that improve a site’s general usability, rather than an accommodation for a particular group.
In fact, I’d wager you’re already improving your site’s accessibility all the time through good usability practices, whether you realize it or not. But it’s a normal tendency to concentrate on features that help people with similar abilities as ourselves, which leaves us open to some accessibility blind-spots.
The Big Challenge
Have you ever made the font size for your heading styles a little bigger, so it was easier to see the major sections of content? Or maybe you added a hover style to your links, so it was easier to see when the pointer was over a clickable area. We make those changes and a thousand others, because we’re catering to the needs and preferences of the people who visit our sites. But when you think about it, changes like distinctive headings and hover styles don’t benefit everyone, they only benefit your sighted visitors. What changes have you made to improve the experience for people with blindness or color-blindness? What about your visitors who don’t use a mouse or can’t hear?
There’s a huge diversity of people using our sites, all with different abilities, but we tend to focus on making it easier for people like us to access/use/absorb our content. It makes sense, since it’s the user experience we’re most familiar with. If you have good vision, you’ve probably been adding accessibility features to your websites for years – distinctive headings, good white space, clean typography – all things that improve accessibility for people who can see your content. If you can’t hear, you’ve probably had captions on every video published on your site. If you don’t use a mouse, you’ve probably had great keyboard access for any website or web app you’ve worked on. The challenge is thinking beyond how we normally experience the web.
Simply put, web accessibility means inclusion. When we work to make our sites more accessible, it means we’re considering the diverse needs, preferences, and abilities of our users, and we’re producing content that works for as many people as possible. It only takes a little time and effort to understand how people use the web differently than you do, and the result is a more open, usable, and robust website.
If you’d like to start learning about all the different ways people use your website, there are many, many good resources you can look at. My favorite is probably WebAIM’s Introduction to Web Accessibility. Their article provides a great overview and links to additional information that explains four major categories of disability types: visual, hearing, motor, and cognitive. If you’re ready to really dig in, take a look at A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences by Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery.
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