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Ethically Accessible

03-25-16 Marshall Norman

Marshall explores oversights that are easy for web developers to make when creating a web that’s accessible for everyone.

The Internet is a cold, heartless machine that pretty much does what we tell it to do (at least that’s the hope). That said, the Internet cannot see who is using it. It shows no preference for gender, race, religion, all of which are hotly discussed topics in our current climate. But we can tell this machine how to treat visitors.

Looking Lenses

As a person with full use of my eyesight, dexterity, and no problems with motion sickness, the web is, for the most part, a pretty wonderful place for me. Designers and developers these days are generally thoughtful enough to make sure that a button is big enough for me to tap with my thumb or there’s enough contrast between the text and background for me to read without much trouble. These considerations are becoming integrated into general best practices for the web; they all mostly—emphasis on the “mostly”—go unsaid at this point.

But let’s step away from the screen and go outside. For me, that means walking to an elevator and hitting a slightly bigger-than-thumb-sized button that has a big ole “G” inscribed next to it. Closer inspection shows that under the “G” are four small dots. We’ve all seen those dots and know what they’re for. There are laws built around those dots.

Luckily for us, those laws and guidelines are easily recognized and enforced. Anybody can walk up to a building that has steps in front and see if there is a ramp for wheelchair access or not. Or walk up to that elevator and see if there is Braille under the floor labels.

It’s a little different on the web. The average person isn’t going to look at your website and see how much of a hassle your site would be for someone who needs assistance using it. As average web users developing the medium we work on, it is easy for us to forget about the things that we don’t deal with every day. We need to reach outside our experiences and break the echo chamber many of us are living in.

Don’t Just Do It

A lot of decision making goes into creating a website. How much will it cost? What technologies will be used? How big can we make this logo? Who’s going to be using it? And to my point: do we consider a user who may need assistance getting around our website? Do we use appropriate labels and tags to guide a person using a screen reader gracefully through our experience? What happens when we don’t?

When we do or do not make these considerations, we are showing our preference and imposing that on whoever is consuming our content. We are either saying, “I care about your experience,” or, “Deal with it.”

There is no suit that’s going to walk up to your website with a clipboard and pen ready to write you a ticket; it becomes our ethical responsibility to hold ourselves accountable for how our sites are made. In order for this to work, I believe a cultural shift needs to happen in many organizations, including ours.

The whole point of the web is to bring information to people who need it. But we do a lot of things to make this hard for some people. Things like using display: none; on offscreen menus, or not putting appropriate labels on form fields. I’m not going to say it’s because people making the web are lazy, but it’s just not been absorbed wholly into our culture.

Note: If you need a primer on web accessibility, there are plenty of resources. I’ll start you down the rabbit hole:

We All Live Here

Resist the urge to assume your site is accessible enough. Do some usability testing on sites you have worked on with someone who uses a screen reader to navigate the web. When I sat in on a session with a user who is blind, I realized how important our job is. I realized how inconsiderate I was being with the things I designed and built.

With a few small, but mindful techniques, you can save people using assistive technologies a lot of time and annoyance. The next time you put a hamburger icon up in the corner of your site for someone to click on, slap an aria-label on that thing. It’s small things like this that make people’s lives easier. And once you understand the ground rules, making lives easier becomes easier. And gosh darn, doesn’t it feel good.

As humans developing the web, we should feel obliged to consider everyone who may look at our sites and do our best to make content available. We should go beyond “good enough” and strive for “great.” Work towards integrating accessibility into your flow. There are plenty of tools out there for you to use. Leave yourself no excuse to not try.

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