March 8 2022
What pops into your mind when you hear the word “accessibility"? People have different perceptions relating to it. That is perfectly normal, yet sometimes not very accurate. Formal interpretations help us to establish common ground, so let’s check what is said about accessibility in the context of the Web.
“The Web is fundamentally designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, location, or ability. When the Web meets this goal, it is accessible to people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive ability.” World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
“[Accessibility means] usability of a product, service, environment or facility by people with the widest range of capabilities … and is not limited to users who are formally recognized as having a disability.” The International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
“Accessibility is the practice of making your websites usable by as many people as possible.” MDN Web Docs
So, while accessibility is a crucial factor for people with disabilities, it is fundamentally about people. All of us. Are you surprised? I was when I first learned that. But before diving deeper into why accessibility matters to all of us, a few words about standards.
Web accessibility is implemented and verified following a standard, particularly the internationally recognized W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The WCAG aims to make web content more accessible, specifically to people with disabilities. Practically, the guidelines are a set of criteria that address the access needs of people with various types of disabilities.
Turns out, these access needs are rather universal and many of the criteria are also beneficial to people without disabilities. They have similar access needs, though the needs may be temporary or to a lower level of dependency. Confused? Let me clarify.
All people have access needs. Some have needs that are more clearly evident, like people with blindness or deafness. Vision and hearing loss are among the limiting conditions recognized by law and often referred to as disabilities. The legal status or diagnosis of disabilities helps us to understand the extent of the population to whom Web accessibility is crucial.
Statistics on people formally recognized with disabilities differ by country due to differences in definitions and legislations. In Finland, about 1,254,800 people live with a disability. That is about 22% of the population (21.2% in the EU, 26% in the US). And the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that “the number of people with disability are dramatically increasing” due to demographic trends and increases in chronic health conditions.
There are various types of disabilities, each one with a wide range of experiences. The WCAG covers all disabilities that affect access to and use of the Web, including:
Not attending to such accessibility considerations often results in a usage barrier to people with disabilities. They are simply unable to use your service. And not only them; anyone can experience a disability.
Most disabilities are perceived as permanent, either present from birth or acquired at a later stage. But people may also experience a disability for a limited time, for instance, when recovering from a broken arm, eye surgery, ear infection, a mental disorder, or a concussion.
People with temporary disabilities have access needs that are similar to those of people with disabilities. For instance, they may require content in alternative formats, multiple ways to access content, magnifying the text and screen, adjusting its brightness, or a keyboard and a screen reader to access content. Some people also retain the newly learned usage behavior even after recovering from their disability.
Estimates in the US suggest that 5% of the working population will experience a short-term disability (lasting up to 6 months) every year and that about 25% will experience a long-term disability before retirement. Given that temporary disabilities are common and may occur to anyone during their lifetime, accessibility considerations become essential for many of us. This is even more important when we consider population aging.
Getting older is normally accompanied by a progressive functional decline that may result in vision and hearing loss as well as deteriorating physical and cognitive abilities. For many, these conditions develop into permanent disabilities, while temporary disabilities are also common among the elderly. Moreover, the access needs of older people are more evident in certain usage situations, like browsing on a small mobile screen.
In Finland, about 22.7% of people are aged 65 or above and the percentage is constantly rising. The access needs of seniors align with the needs of people with disabilities. Compliance with accessibility guidelines is therefore critical in order to serve the older population. Next, let’s see who else benefits from accessibility.
Have you tried to use social media while holding a sleeping baby? Watched a video on a bus without headphones? Attempted to read on your mobile phone in bright sunlight? Submitted a tax return in a non-native language? You have experienced what is called a “situational limitation”. The term accounts to common scenarios that limit our abilities, e.g. to see, hear, concentrate, or use our hands, and temporarily affect the task at hand.
Accessibility guidelines come in handy, again. For instance, avoiding auto-playing content to not wake up a sleeping baby and keyboard-accessibility to allow easy browsing with one hand; having subtitles to help understand video content without audio; using understandable layouts, consistency, and clear language to help users in noisy environments; and clearly visible content that is easier to perceive in bright light. Situational limitations are more likely to be experienced by mobile users.
Web use is increasingly on mobile devices, having surpassed desktop usage back in 2017. Mobile users also benefit from accessibility guidelines. For instance, the minimum target size of interactive elements and magnification and spacing of text become critical factors when using a small screen. Keyboard accessibility, gesture instructions and alternatives for gesture interaction are helpful for users who have difficulties using touchscreens. The proper use of semantic elements assists in entering data. And guidelines for the visibility of content help in environments with different lightings.
As an immigrant in Finland, I commonly use Finnish subtitles to more easily comprehend video content and to enrich my vocabulary, especially with dialects. Websites that use plain language were a great help to me during my first years in Finland. Specifically with form instructions and error messages, the use of clear language attends to everyone’s needs for comprehension.
Are you ever distracted by pop-up notifications, by bots constantly trying to chat with you, or by auto-play videos on websites? Have you ever been puzzled by confusing instructions and cryptic error messages when filling out a form? Have you encountered too small or faint text on your daily web dose? Have you come across a website not properly presented when you zoom in or use it on a mobile device? And how about difficulties finding essential information on a website, like a business’ opening hours?
Guess what? Accessibility guidelines also attend to these situations. So you can also benefit from Web accessibility. That is, once the websites you use would comply with accessibility guidelines. Let’s keep this in mind and create better Web experiences for everyone.
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