When we think of disabilities, most tend to think about the extremes. Yet most disabilities are more subtle and more temporary, and most of us have them. Here are seven reasons why every communications professional should care about accessibility.
I was driving over the Kongsvinger bridge on the way to Oslo when I saw it. The traffic signal pictured above intends to tell people it’s not safe to turn left. But for folk like me who live with a colour deficit, it encourages me to turn left into oncoming traffic. “Turn left now it shouts”, especially if impatient cars are on my tail. Even for people who see more typically, the truth is that the part of our brain that interprets the encouraging shape of the arrow triggers a hundred milliseconds before the part that associates red with danger.
When we think of disabilities, most of us tend to think about the extremes: someone blind since birth… a quadriplegic… being completely deaf. Yet most disabilities are more subtle and more temporary, and most of us have them.
Let’s take a quick survey to see what proportion of the audience suffers from a disability.
⦁ Do you have any sort of visual impairment?
⦁ Are you colourblind?
⦁ Do you wear glasses?
⦁ Have you had laser eye surgery?
⦁ In a wheelchair?
⦁ Are you deaf? Any sort of hearing impairment?
⦁ Taking medicine for a cold or allergies
⦁ Have you ever had a limb in a cast for more than two days?
⦁ Carpal tunnel syndrome
⦁ ADD? ADHD? (Already bored with my list?)
⦁ Are you taking cold medication?
⦁ Are you pregnant?
⦁ Are you drunk?
⦁ Are you scuba-diving?
And that’s not counting the temporary deficits: when you’re on the treadmill at the gym where five TVs are showing five stations: the sound is turned off and the captions are on, and so everyone is temporarily deaf. Or when we use a black and white laser printer to print a Web page: almost all suffer from that flavour of temporary colorblindness … and if you don’t plan that page to work in black and white, you’ve lost audience.
Truth is most of us have some sort of substantial disability, while we’re all temporarily disabled when we’re standing on the bus, holding a bag of groceries in one hand and trying to text with the other.
And so we risk losing a substantial portion of the audience we deserve when we don’t follow the inclusive design principles that are sure to leave no one behind…
So here are seven reasons why every communications professional should care about accessibility.
1. Search engines have severe disabilities that affect SEO.
Perhaps the most frequent visitor to your Web site has severe disabilities. Google’s search spider (and Yahoo’s and Bing’s) is blind, can’t hear, and has the cognitive abilities of a four-year-old at best.
Search is getting cleverer every day. But when a spider arrives to index a website that pays no attention to accessibility, it gets a distorted or incomplete idea about that site. Without the confidence that it is perceiving how your site is organized and what’s there, you risk low rankings or content (text, photos, multimedia) that is missed entirely.
So designing for accessibility is simply good business. And this is just the first of many good reasons why every web designer should learn the rules for building accessible websites.
2. From time to time, we all have temporary disabilities.
According to the U.S. Census of 2010, about 1 in 5 Americans have a substantial permanent disability:
⦁ 8.1 million have difficulty seeing, even with glasses or contacts
⦁ 7.6 million have trouble hearing, even with a hearing aid
⦁ 6.7 million have difficulty grasping objects like a pencil or PC mouse
⦁ 5.1 million have trouble concentrating on tasks
As well, around 10% of men have a colour deficit, so you can’t rely on colour to explain things to them.
And as we learned above, we all suffer from disability from time to time. So if we want everyone to get our message all of the time, inclusive design simply makes sense.
3. An accessible site helps every visitor.
When we design for the extremes, everyone benefits. You may not need the cuts in the sidewalks that allow wheelchairs to cross intersections easily. But you sure enjoy them when you’re towing a suitcase or stroller.
A more accessible product benefits everyone, NOT just visitors with permanent challenges.
Following the better information design principles that are implied in the WCAG 2.0 accessibility guidelines can help all your visitors have a better experience with your site or app or distance learning application.
People are often concerned that if they follow the accessibility principles there will be a trade-off of good user experience for their mainstream users. And indeed if you don’t understand why each rule exists there is that possibility. However, if you take the time to understand the thinking behind the guidelines, I promise I can show you how to implement every Level A and Level AA guideline without trade-offs … and most often with benefits for all: add more options for entering, viewing and formatting information; removing barriers to navigation; and repairing flaws in the user experience.
In all these ways, accessible design helps build a better user experience that not only accommodates but delights.
4. An accessible website will last longer.
Very few foresaw how the iPad would transform how people use technology. And when it did most sites that relied on Flash content for their landing pages were in trouble.
But we all know that, in this decade when the majority of humanity finally joins the internet, innovation will continue to come at an ever-increasing pace.
Accessible sites were already iPad-compatible, and the best way to inoculate your sites and apps against future technological change is by following device-independent standards such as WCAG 2.0. WCAG 2.0 will be with us for at least 10 more years (there’s no WCAG 3.0 in the works!) and it’s a rare hardware or software developer that releases new devices, operating systems or plug-ins today without taking them into account. They know how to succeed in today’s market. Now you do too.
That measure of future-proofing alone could be your business case for a website to follow the accessibility guidelines. But there’s more…
5. Building accessible websites gives you a competitive edge.
If you’re a web designer, developer, writer or content owner, learning your role in a team that builds websites that comply with accessibility rules can be a clear differentiator in the marketplace.
Again, you can help your client build a business case for accessibility. You can stress the long-term financial benefits of creating a site accessible to all. If appropriate, for some clients you can touch on the projected savings on call centers when more visitors serve themselves instead of phoning in for help. You can even mention the “stick” of possible lawsuits and the “carrot” of earning points for social responsibility.
Think about it: If you work all that in your proposal, and nobody else does, won’t that give you the inside track to win that web project?
6. Drive down costs.
With a few exceptions, rigorously following the WCAG 2.0 guidelines will reduce development and maintenance costs, establishing discipline in many editorial, design, and programming phases that previously lacked them.
A typical call to a call centre costs perhaps $25 to fulfil. A self-served help incident on a Website instead costs perhaps five cents. Every time a visitor can self-serve, you are driving down costs.
More broadly, if the development team uses a more structured approach to the basics, they can spend a greater proportion of their time on the strategic issues that are more satisfying, and more profitable, and result in shrewder systems that are more robust.
7. Accessibility regulations and standards are here now.
If no other argument moves you, building accessible websites is becoming the law in more and more jurisdictions and situations.
The U.N. declared equal access to “information and communications technologies” a basic human right in 2006 in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In 2013 I completed an assignment for the World Wide Web Foundation for thewebindex.com which benchmarks, amongst other things, accessibility in 60+ countries. As I tested and reviewed government, banking, cellular, and newspaper sites in dozens of countries, I was pleased to see that the entire world is converging on the same WCAG 2.0 standard. Prompted by the leadership of governments such as Norway’s, even the United States government’s Section 508 regulation and ADA regulations are being honed to point to WCAG 2.0 Level AA for potentially every level of government and public-facing business in America.
Governments around the world now understand the need to make the web accessible to all. At first just government, but now ground-breaking laws in places like Ontario and Norway are demanding a minimum level of Web accessibility for private sector sites, schools, and municipalities, …
Some rules apply to public sector agencies, and some to enterprises of a certain size. But there’s no doubt in my mind that if the previous decade was where green went from the edge to the mainstream of our societies, then the coming decade will be the one where universal, inclusive design will become how we roll. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s simply good business.
So why wait to be pushed into it by the threat of legal action? Get ahead of the curve, and start delighting more customers and driving down costs … you may even sleep better at night. Because it’s just another opportunity to not just do good design, but to do good.
Want more? Register for our online course on June 13th