2020 marked the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which established protections for Americans with disabilities similar to those protections enacted with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In addition to making it illegal to discriminate against Americans with disabilities, the ADA also created accessibility requirements for businesses and public services. This is why you see ramps at buildings, braille on signage, closed captioning and many other enhancements designed to help enable people with all abilities in their everyday life.
While not part of the initial bill, provisions for web and mobile application access are now covered under the ADA — though it’s not explicitly called out. The Department of Justice was working on official updates to Title III to include accessibility guidelines, but that work stopped in 2017.
According to statistics that were updated in 2019, the Center for Disease Control says that 26% of Americans (one in four people) have some type of disability. That is 61 million people in the U.S. alone, representing a massive audience that you want to make sure you can reach.
What is Accessibility?
Accessibility is the act of making your product, whether it be a website, application or similar, usable for as many people as possible, regardless of ability.
It is different from usability, which is the degree to which a person can use a product to effectively achieve a goal.
Why is Accessibility Important?
Accessibility is important because if your product isn’t accessible to people with visual, hearing, or mobile disabilities, then you are excluding a large number of potential users from access to your services.
Accessibility also helps people without disabilities, such as those recovering from injury, people who have changing hearing or vision abilities, situational limitations like being on a loud train and unable to hear audio, or users with slow or no network connectivity.
By designing and building accessible products, you can increase your potential audience size, market share and revenue, while also ensuring your website is available to all who want to access it.
The bottom line is that accessibility hurts no one and helps everyone.
Going Beyond Accessibility with Inclusivity
In addition to accessibility, inclusivity and representation are also important. You want to make sure that when you engage with customers. They see themselves represented in your product.
- Use diverse photography
- Use relevant and diverse photography across race, gender/identity, orientation, and age for the audience and global regions you serve.
- Use inclusive language
- Try to use gender-inclusive pronouns and avoid using examples that may only relate to a subset of your audience. When writing about those with disabilities, use people-first language.
- Don’t write in local colloquialisms
- Saying something goes together like “peanut butter and jelly” or like “fish and chips” mean the same thing, but would a global audience know that you are trying to say two things that go together, or would the comparison fall flat?
What Can You Do to Ensure Maximum Accessibility?
First off, don’t think of accessibility and inclusivity as projects. Instead, view them as ongoing parts of every project you work on, from the research and discovery phases all the way through design, development, testing, release and the entire lifecycle of your product.
There are many factors and aspects to focus on when building products. Let’s take a look at them through the perspectives of the teams that are typically involved.
Accessibility for Product Managers
As the product manager, you are the advocate and voice for all users. As the steward of your product, you need to ensure that everyone knows why accessibility is important, and what to look for.
The first thing you should do as a product manager is to know your audience. Knowing that will tell you where you need to focus.
Plan for accessibility up front. You can always fit in accessibility features after you launch, but with any shortcuts you take along the way, you will end up spending more time and resources fixing what would have been easier to build in at the start. Technical debt and cleanup is expensive.
Most importantly, include a diverse group of users in your research and testing.
Accessibility for Writers
Who is your audience? If you are writing an application for children, you likely wouldn’t use the language that you would if writing an application for a doctor or lawyer.
You should also know where and how the content that you are writing will be used. Is it for a web page? Then you’ll want to be concise and get your message across in as few words as possible. If you’re writing technical documentation, you will need to be much more detailed.
Is the content that you are writing scannable? Let’s be honest, most people don’t read every word you write. A lot of people scan looking for something specific. If you have a wall of text that isn’t broken out into clear sections with headlines, your readers may miss valuable information.
Accessibility for Designers
While you are in the early design stages, including wireframes, make sure that you give your designs space so elements can be clearly seen and interacted with.
Color, and lack of color, are equally important. If you create a beautiful and colorful design, is it still legible if you make it grayscale or look at it through filters than mimic the different types of color blindness a reader may have?
Fonts and font sizes should be clear and legible, ample line heights smaller line lengths are also good as it makes your content more readable.
Animation can cause motion sickness in some users. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use animation — just make sure it has a specific reason for being there, as well as a fallback for users that may opt to not run certain technologies in their browsers or devices.
Accessibility for Developers
As a developer, you may get a lot of direction around accessibility from both product managers and designers, but they may not know all of the ins and outs of the technical side of the house.
Ensuring that all images have alt text is one element of accessibility that most developers know, but what about page structure? Sure, you’ll get content from the marketing teams, but there’s a correlation between build-out of that content on the website or application and how it impacts search engine results as well as how screen-reader users interact with your site. Having a consistent and proper page format is key for this audience.
Other items to consider:
- Is your website or application usable with a keyboard for people who can’t use a mouse?
- Can you navigate your website or application with a screen reader?
- Do your videos have captions available?
- Do your forms have clear labels on the fields?
The Rackspace Technology web team has built an open source accessibility scanner (currently an alpha module) using Drupal and our Web Page Archive module where you can run an accessibility scan that will check your site to see how well you comply with several accessibility standards, including suggestions on how to correct any issues. The tool also includes historical reporting so you can see the trends of your site over time.
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
- Suggested reading from the A11y Project
- WebAIM Color Contrast Checker
- Accessibility Resources for Apple Developers (macOS, iOS, watchOS, tvOS)
- Accessibility Resources for Google Developers (Android, Chrome, YouTube)
- Accessibility Resources for Microsoft Developers (Windows, Office, Xbox)
- Accessibility Resources from Mozilla
- Accessibility for Everyone by Laura Kalbag (A Book Apart)
Building Ethical Products
About the Authors
Mike Rastiello has worked in the web technology space professionally for 15 years and first taught himself basic coding with an HTML for Dummies for book while still in high school with Notepad.exe, Internet Explorer, and a 56K modem. He has worked and managed projects large and small including websites, web applications, CRM integrations, API development, and more for local mom and pop small businesses to global and publicly traded companies. Currently, he is the Product Manager for Rackspace.com and oversees the product roadmap and development for the global marketing platform which runs entirely on Drupal. He lives in Austin with his wife.Read more about Mike Rastiello