Advisor

Design for Technology Accessibility on the Front End — Always

Posted July 8, 2021 | Leadership | Technology |
hands working on an adaptive keyboard

Tech accessibility is best served when there is inclusive design for people with disabilities (PWD) such as vision, hearing, motor, cognitive, and neurological impairments that starts from the design/user research phase and carries through the software development stage to the marketing cycle. When accessibility has not been embedded in the DevOps process, it shows. Patches don’t work.

In 1990, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) published the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and in 2010, the updated Standards for Accessible Design added regulations stating that “all electronic and information technology must be accessible to those with disabilities.” Although the DOJ is currently developing specific guidance on virtual “places of public accommodation,” including the Internet, I strongly advise adhering to the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in both the public and private sectors.

People with disabilities are creative, resilient, and figure out innovative ways to work around their disability to get work done. As such, many companies are discovering the value of hiring disabled employees, courting disabled customers, and inviting disabled folks into the conversation, especially during the DevOps lifecycle phases. Software engineers, product managers, and team leads must be trained to incorporate accessibility from inception into the product development process. Accessibility testing in product development practices must “shift left,” meaning the testing should always start as early as possible. For example, software engineers can use automated accessibility testing tools such as Deque’s axe when developing applications.

Accessible Technology Design Isn’t New

Technological accessibility innovation has come a long way since the early 1800s when Pellegrino Turri built a typewriter to help a blind friend write legibly. The application of the transistor for use in hearing aids won its inventors the 1956 Nobel Prize for physics. Audio ATMs from NCR Corporation in 1997 and Microsoft’s 2000 Windows release with an on-screen text-to-speech keyboard option show how many organizations through the years have innovated to help people with disabilities.

Within the last decade, disabled users have benefited from bundled accessibility apps built into almost every computer. For example, screen readers for visually impaired users such as VoiceOver and TalkBack are readily available on Mac and Android devices. And while the ADA’s 2010 standards and the WCAG directives for website accessibility have strengthened access to website content, more is needed. A  2021 WebAIM study revealed that 97% of the top one million home pages had accessibility issues. Gaming is still largely inaccessible to people with disabilities, and many sources can explain how — and why — to enhance. Bottom line: product and leadership teams can make a massive difference in the technology experience of PWD by consistently emphasizing accessible design up-front. 

Role of Product Teams

According to the World Health Organization, over one billion people worldwide live with some form of disability; finding the best way to serve PWD opens doors to not just a small minority, but to around 15% of the global population and 26% of the US population.

The inclusion process involves training software engineers, conducting and incorporating user research, and leveraging accessibility testing tools throughout the build. Here’s why: a project that waits for accessibility testing at the end may end up inaccessible/only partially accessible and abandoned by disabled users in the marketplace. This results in wasted DevOps time, money, and human resources. 

Deque CTO Dylan Barrell recommends that DevOps teams use “interim milestones for accessibility testing that start small and build on early success.” This means accessibility testing has to be included in ongoing, iterative measurements using the objective and key results (OKRs) and key performance indicators that fit the industry, marketplace, country, user interface, or user experience as required. 

No Shortcuts

What’s more, companies that do not develop for accessibility leave themselves open for lawsuits. In March 2021, 248 accessibility lawsuits were filed (a very high number, according to Accessibility.com), with consumer goods, apparel, and food product industries the most targeted. Since integrating accessibility has suddenly become critical, organizations may wonder if there are any shortcuts to respond quickly and inexpensively to prevent lawsuits. 

Some companies have tried using overlays. Overlays are, in general terms, technologies that apply third-party source code designed to improve the website’s front-end code. Tempting as they are, however, the Overlay Fact Sheet recommends against using them because they do not meet all requirements of the WCAG standards. There is also some concern about user privacy and the overlay’s own accessibility problems. Users have had “… to take steps to actively block overlays from appearing at all.” Fortunately, many high-profile for-profit and nonprofit leaders are embracing the ideals of baking accessibility in from the beginning instead of relying on overlays.

Role of Leadership Teams 

Designing for accessibility starts at the top, with leaders setting the tone for the organization. Many companies such as MicrosoftIBM, and Verizon have made accessibility a priority. The nonprofit Disability:IN works to advance disability inclusion in companies and offers the Disability Equality Index tool that “helps companies build a roadmap of measurable, tangible actions that they can take to achieve disability inclusion and equality.”

One of the best ways to achieve first-hand accessibility knowledge is through direct disability testing of products, websites, and services. Companies like Knowbility.org help “ … businesses, educational institutions, government agencies, and nonprofits … find testers they need.” The worst thing to do is to guess what PWD need and design based on assumptions. If companies guess wrong, they may be sued or lose sales, credibility, and marketplace trust. Buy-in from leadership teams is critical, as they will ultimately decide how to prioritize accessibility. In his Agile Accessibility Handbook, Barrell recommends creating a central accessibility team that can educate executives about the business case for accessibility and enforce company-wide accessibility policies.

The Value of Front-End Accessibility Design

Ignoring the needs and perspectives of disabled people diminishes and disenfranchises them. Every company can answer the challenge to design for diversity and create better solutions and experiences for all. Entities such as Microsoft and Verizon are “walking the talk.” Mindsets of leaders at companies like these address a near-future that makes accessibility decision making easier “because that’s what we do.” More specifically, OKRs relating to accessibility and inclusivity surround organizations’ cultures and permeate the code that holds the company accountable in the marketplace.

Accessibility should not be an afterthought or something that a line of code can fix. In fact, a line-of-code overlay accessibility “solution” for blind people has been reported make things less accessible, not more. Basic computer accessibility settings are much better than they were 10 years ago and are improving. But bundled vision and motor assists such as VoiceOver/TalkBack and pointer control won’t work well if the apps they interact with aren’t designed with accessibility in mind. In a perfect future world, they would all work seamlessly, all the time.

Finally, technology accessibility is not all about complying with regulations to “follow the rules.” Accessibility is a human right. People with disabilities constitute the largest single minority of any subgroup of humankind. One in seven people is disabled; some are permanently restricted, while others are temporarily disabled from accidents or medical procedures. Anything that can be done to create a better experience for employees and customers is a moral imperative and makes good business sense. 

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

About The Author
Meena Das
Meenakshi "Meena" Das is a software engineer at Microsoft. Through her expertise, she has advised several individuals and organizations about tangible ways to make their products and services accessible. She can be reached at meenakshidas1112@gmail.com or via LinkedIn.