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Web Accessibility Lessons Learned from a Total Beginner

This blog post was written by Ayomide Fatoye, Summer 2021 Forum One. Ayo is majoring in General Engineering – Computer Science at Texas A&M University.

Hi there friend, my name is Ayo Fatoye and this summer I got the amazing opportunity to intern at Forum One. Those nine weeks were amazing, and I got to learn a ton. Web accessibility, in particular, became an intriguing topic for me as it is so integral to my field of interest (which is website development, by the way), yet before my internship, I had never given it much thought. I got the chance to talk to a lot of amazing people here at Forum One about web accessibility, and they taught me a lot! I decided to do what any good nerd does when they learn something new: write a blog post about it. 

First, what is web accessibility?

Web accessibility refers to the design and implementation of digital products and services (i.e., websites, operating systems, apps, etc.) with the goal of making them usable by as many people as possible. It is an important part of development and design, as it dictates how efficiently people are able to utilize a website.

Using the internet can introduce many issues for people who experience a disability. This, however, does not have to be the case. Adequately accessible websites and applications can guarantee that everyone is still able to efficiently use the web for all their needs.  

Unfortunately, though, not nearly enough of the web is adequately accessible. While some people might have no problem at all using sites that are properly accessible, much of the internet is impossible to use for some people. The good news is that there is a lot we can do to make sure that you and anyone else in the world with specific needs or preferences are able to seamlessly experience the internet. 

Why is web accessibility important?

It helps you do better as an organization  

According to the World Health Organization, over one billion people worldwide use assistive technology in their day-to-day lives. This can include web-accessibility technologies such as screen readers that allow people with lower-vision to efficiently access web content; speech-to-text programs that allow people with auditory impairment to adequately access audio information on the web; and, voice command technology that enable people with mobility impairment adequate access to the web. However, a vast majority of the web fails to make adequate accommodations for their specific accessibility needs. For example, in the United States alone, 70% of websites do not function properly with screen readers. Failing to make your website adequately accessible could mean that people throughout the world are not able to interact with your organization. 

Accessible internet experiences are not just useful for those who rely on assistive technologies, but also for those who might temporarily—or suddenly—find themselves in need of these services. Proper implementation of accessibility in website design can help you reach a lot more people and allows people without specific needs to use your website more efficiently. The better job you do at making sure your websites can be conveniently used by as many people as possible, the more people will use your websites, and the more impact you can have as an organization. It is our job as developers to design our products with maximal efficiency in mind, and when we do that job right, it means organizations are able to better deliver on their missions. 

There’s an accessibility gap 

It’s no secret that so much of 21st-century life revolves around the internet. Today, an estimated four billion people use the web daily for everything from entertainment to education to personal finances and much more. While this advancement in technology brings convenience to most people, for many it is severely disadvantageous as most of the web is not designed to accommodate their accessibility needs. And as more services are moved to the internet, the negative impacts of inadequate web accessibility get more severe. So as essential activities like tax-paying and banking are moved online, many are left stranded.

Because we can—and should 

While technology will always have room for improvement, we are already at the point in history where no website in the world needs to have severe accessibility problems. We have the technology and techniques necessary to make the web adequately accessible. All we need to do is make use of them. 

An accessible website is legally required by some entities. Under federal law, a website must be compliant with the Section 508 accessibility standards (which, since 2018, include the internationally-recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) if the website works with/for the federal government. Additionally, over 30 U.S states require sites associated with the state to be compliant with either the 508 standards or their own version of the standards. 

Failing to comply with the 508 standards could lead to legal action in some cases. This, of course, is very bad for business as it leads to an avoidable financial loss for some.

What you can do to ensure accessibility 

Start from the beginning 

It is important to be concerned about your product’s accessibility from the beginning stages of development and design, even as early as the research stages. As much as possible, you should gather input from a diverse group of people each with different specific needs and preferences. This allows your website to serve as many people as possible, maximizing overall effectiveness and ensuring that each user has a pleasurable experience.

Failing to deal with your site’s accessibility from the beginning stages of development often leads to very costly repercussions. Retrofitting products for compliance and accessibility is significantly more expensive than designing them to be sufficiently accessible from the very beginning. Additionally, no one likes to be an afterthought. Users should feel that we are taking their needs and preferences into consideration from the start. 

Test whether or not it works  

As with every aspect of a website’s design, it is important that you test your site for efficient web accessibility before its launch (and afterward, for proper maintenance). There are various tools and techniques available to test your website for accessibility. Some tools are simply chrome extensions like Siteimprove and Lighthouse. These add-ons evaluate your website’s accessibility and provide suggestions on how your site could be improved. During testing, it’s important to take as many accessibility requirements as possible into consideration. 

Make it a team effort and take it one step at a time 

It’s easy to think that the task of making our websites accessible can be handled by a separate team in the same way design and front-end development are handled by separate teams. However, accessibility has many different parts and everyone working on a website has a part to play in ensuring that the site is properly accessible. 

The various aspects of accessibility can be tackled by different disciplines (e.g., front-end developers, back-end developers, UX designers, content writers, visual designers, support, etc.) and every team should think about completing their part with a diverse audience in mind. Accessibility is not something that can be efficiently tackled by one team, as proper accessibility practice depends on what aspect of the website we’re discussing.

Ensuring sufficient accessibility, as with every part of web development, takes hard work and time. It won’t all be done in a day, especially if you have to retrofit an already completed site. It’s very helpful to work on accessibility progressively, by focusing on one small task at a time. This way, even the most daunting of tasks can be completed with relative ease. 

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