Accessibility matters

Wheelchair icon sign

This post was written and edited on my iPhone SE. Writing with a phone was an intentional barrier, in line with this article’s theme, Accessibility. Writing this piece was much more enjoyable with the help of features like predictive text and auto-correct. Would this have been possible without those features? Yes, but they took a constraint and made my experience better. Grammarly has designed a keyboard to improve writing for mobile and desktop users alike. Thanks Grammarly’s iPhone app, the following article may make sense.

The tech industry has snowballed. Millions of jobs exist today that didn’t ten years ago, or even five. As our industry grows, our unintended harm increases with it. Things like ethics at the expense of business growth are becoming a huge issue. But the overlooked importance of accessibility is where I will focus.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I have been unquestionably guilty of ignoring accessibility in my design practice. But no longer.

Passing off accessibility may sound like one of these statements:

  • “The scope doesn’t allow it.”
  • “Most users won’t be impacted.”
  • “It doesn’t meet the business need.”

You aren’t alone if you have thought or said any of these. But these statements are justifications to excuse yourself and your team from doing the work. Accessible features don’t require a massive scope. When implemented correctly, all of your users will benefit, great design extends. And accessibility decisions/indecision will impact your business (if not now, then when stricter laws get passed).

I recently took a course from Deque University. One particular lesson highlighted the impact of designing for accessibility across a user base. The topic reframed my thinking around user impact. In the lesson, a bell curve chart illustrated a user base. The outer segments contained a smaller group of users, with the majority falling in the middle. As technologists, we tend to focus on the middle of the curve. This is problematic because concentrating only on the middle leaves out a lot of people. If we only design for users  in the middle, we miss all the users on the outside. If we reach for the edges, we aren’t just creating solutions for those folks. We are designing for our whole user base.

Bell Curve chart 30% users outside of the chart 70% in the middle

A great example of this in the physical world is sidewalks with sloped curbs. These curbs not only make navigating through a neighborhood wheelchair accessible, but they also improve the experience for kids on bikes, parents with strollers, and older adults with walkers. This design improves neighborhoods for everyone. Accessibility multiplies!

Accessibility is linear

When I used to think of accessibility design, stereotypes came to mind—a blind individual navigating a website. I have since learned that accessibility is much broader. Disabilities can be permanent, temporary, or situational. Here are some examples:

  • Blind or no vision person using a website
  • A plumber with a broken arm signing up for workers compensation 
  • A parent who is working on a laptop while holding an infant
  • An individual with a cognitive disability 
  • An individual who lost their glasses signing up for an eye appointment
  • An engineer in a quiet waiting room with no headphones who needs to watch a video for work (hello subtitles)

When we start thinking through barriers like these, we see the importance of keyboard access, contrast ratios, and audio captioning. As we broaden our perspective, we find that the need for accessibility is much larger than we believed. The potential impact that we can create is massive.

Admitting the truth of our apathy is hard, and starting can be intimidating. But you aren’t alone in this. We have a long way to go as an industry, and we can’t fix all of our inaccessible issues overnight. But we can take our next step. Then we can follow it with another action. I am in my first couple of steps. I hope you’ll join me.

One thing I’ll encourage is listening to folks who have faced barriers. Their struggles are frustrating. But their stories can open our eyes. When we sit with the pain and frustration of the beautiful humans with disabilities using our apps, the harder it is to justify apathy. 

If you are just getting started, here are some helpful resources to read up on:

Let’s create a better internet for all!