Make learning about accessibility more accessible

Edit 14/02/2019: I prepared and wrote this talk almost two years ago. I still believe in everything that I brought up, however I believe that my language was not inclusive and so I have edited this.

I have changed the wording of some of my sentences to focus on the Social Model of Disability which looks at disability as being socially constructed. In this model, disability is the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an uninclusive environment.

Previously I was referring to “people living with disabilities” which reflects the contrasting medical model of disability. In this model, disability is a health condition that needs to be “fixed” or “cured”. Disability in this sense is seen as a problem. I don’t believe in this model, and am unlearning this language!

This might seem like a minor wording change but I thought I would disclose it so anyone who stumbles upon this article can unlearn with me. Our words are political and have real consequences on people. If you want to know why I believe this is important, read PWDA’s thoughts on this. They also have a really useful language guide that I’ve followed to edit this post. And if I missed anything, let me know!

I tell organisations how to make their digital presences more accessible for a living. I wasn’t always an expert in the domain, in fact, I’m still not. I was first introduced to design when I was 8 and had made my first webpage on an kid’s page builder called MatMice. It was all about glitter and pretty things back then, the concept of “inclusive” design had never occurred to me. 9 years later I began my first year of Design Computing and discovered that the best design was all about the users. When I got my job as a Web Accessibility Analyst at Media Access Australia in my 2nd year, I realised that I didn’t know how to design for all people and that my degree hadn’t really prepared me for a lot of the real design problems I encounter at my job. I never learnt about accessibility at all, and I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for my job.

It was a very strange revelation for me. I thought it was peculiar that my awesome tutors talked so much about empathy, design thinking, and focusing on the user, but didn’t prepare me to think about the users who are often left out of the equation.

It turns out that I am not the only person not learning about accessibility. I had a look at how we currently learn about accessibility in universities, and why we don’t, and presented these findings at Campaign Monitor on March 14th. This is a write up of what I presented.

The current state of education about accessibility

Learning about accessibility is not compulsory

The biggest surprise to me was that most course programs don’t even teach the concept of accessibility, nor include it in their curriculum. Conversations about this with both students and professionals in the industry shocked me because I learned that most university programs don’t even introduce the topic at all.

My friends who have studied Bachelor of IT at places like WSU and UTS, have never even touched on the topic of accessibility once. I thought it might just be a Sydney or Australia wide thing, however I talked to my friend at UC Berkley, who also said that she had also never learnt about it.

If you’re lucky, sometimes the topic of accessibility will come up but only in ways that aren’t comprehensive or memorable. Another friend of mine who had studied a Bachelor of IT at UTS had to rummage through his academic transcript when I interviewed him to double check that he had learned about it. In my personal experience, I have definitely seen 1–2 slides about accessibility in the occasion that the teaching academic cares. From the top of my head, I had heard tutors talk about it very briefly in Web Design and Human-Computer Interaction, two subjects from different faculties, but I hadn’t actually really learned how to create anything inclusive.

My favourite story was from my colleague Matthew Putland, who is this super smart dude who learned about all sorts of things while completing his Bachelor of Information Technology; cyber security, web languages, computer forensics, and all this other fancy stuff. He only learned about accessibility in one subject where it wasn’t even part of the curriculum.

“There was one assignment in my 3-year degree that mentioned accessibility, and it was only worth 3 marks out the 25 needed for the assignment…Accessibility just wasn’t talked about or discussed despite that one time, and it was only because the lecturer himself was disabled (he’s a professor with Cerebral Palsy) and he’s passionate on the idea of making websites accessible, so he snuck it into his assignment even though it’s not in the curriculum.”

His lecturer had to sneak it into the assignment.

You can get a professional certificate… but only externally

I love this concept — a separate course students and professionals can take to be professionally certified in web accessibility (currently I’m not sure if programs exist for general inclusive design). But here’s the thing — students can’t just take one course to fix a systemic problem.

Think of it like this. A student notices that they are interested in accessible design and that their university doesn’t teach about it. They might take this course and receive credit points for it. That’s all good and sweet right?

Then they continue throughout the rest of their course, taking subjects on design and web development. Something accessibility related might come up and they ask their tutor about it. But it’s not in the curriculum so their tutor might not know and doesn’t really have an obligation to care. No other students have been taught about accessibility nor have they done a course on it as it’s not compulsory, so the student can’t really discuss the issue thoroughly with their peers. This student doesn’t receive ongoing support in their endeavour to truly practice inclusive design. All they have is this a professional certificate about one course they did, but no practical experience implementing it into their other subjects.

Universities can do a lot more about it…

I thought perhaps I was expecting too much from universities at the moment and that universities would have at least implemented teaching about accessibility to future designers and developers into their future plans. I had a look at various Disability Action Plans of universities in Sydney. They focus on a lot of the important things; mainly creating a safe and inclusive environment for people with various impairments through services, digital environments, physical environments, and other planning. This is all fantastic, and many of these plans have gone through already, improving the experiences of many university staff and students.

Most Universities have expressed interest in becoming leaders in “developing an inclusive Australian society”. This is also great. And I think a really tangible and direct way of doing this would be to mould their graduates to be able to make, develop, and design experiences to be inclusive. It’s a holistic step in breaking the various barriers people living with disability have to face. If universities make an effort to introduce “accessible” design and development into their curriculums, they are solving many of their existing problems that are likely to resurface due to a lack of education. Universities have the potential to be the forefront of design that does not discriminate. If they are taught about accessibility, uni graduates will go out into the world to continue making things that everyone can use — this means that making accessible experiences is not a remediation step, it is something that is done during the whole “making” process.

Another good way to look at it is through the lens of “disability as an interaction”. USYD’s Disability Action plan uses a definition by International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) to define “disability” as “the interaction between individuals with a health condition (eg cerebral palsy, down syndrome and depression) and personal and environmental factors (eg negative attitudes, inaccessible transportation and public buildings, and limited social supports).” The university uses this interpretation of the word to help frame their Disability Action Plan. When I look at disability as an interaction, I know that as a designer, I am responsible for ensuring that personal and environmental factors that exist within my designs do not hinder users with disabilities from doing things. As designers and developers, we can design an experience that any individual can navigate through. The only thing is that we have to learn how to do it.

Why are things they way they are right now?

The “edge case” myth

Interviewer: So, Monica, do you have any experience in usability testing?
Me: Yes. My current role involves testing clients’ websites with people who have various disabilities and needs.
Interviewer: Oh, so you have experience testing edge cases.

This conversation occurred during a job interview I had, and it seems to be a recurring one that pops up when I meet new people in the design industry. There’s a rumour going around that users living with disabilities using a product or finding information should be considered an “edge case”. It isn’t. And it’s frustrating that people think that they are just “extreme” cases.

Here are two indisputable facts:
1. 1 in 5 Australians have a disability.
2. Our population is aging so much which will lead to more age related disabilities.

With these numbers, that speak for itself and are enough to justify having mandated accessibility curriculum, it is scary to think that current mainstream graduates who produce future experiences will not know how to design for at least 20% of the population.

Some people might go as far as to say that everyone has a disability. My former colleague Heidi Laidler talked about the idea of accessible design not just being for the 20% of people diagnosed with a disability. People without disability will still benefit from accessible design consideration, due to fluid needs. Here’s an example of a situation taken from Heidi’s article that sums it up.

Situation: Using your phone while standing on a busy bus or train.
Disability = Mobility impairment, as one arm is required to hold on to keep balance.

Understanding that the “edge case” myth is not true, will ensure that the products and information we create reach out to a broader audience and are easy for everyone to use and reach.

The “ugly” myth

Now this myth is just unfair.

There is a misconception that accessibly designed interfaces lack colour, personality, and flair. Most of the time when I give clients advice on how to improve the accessibility compliance of their websites, it’s all about adding titles, labels, or proper semantic tags to elements. This almost never changes the visual appearance of a website. If you want to add pretty pictures and videos, that’s cool. Just mark them up properly with adequate alternative text and alternative communication forms such as transcripts. For things that will change physical appearance such as colour, we can teach students to check out the abundance of free tools out there like ColorSafe and Colour Contrast Analyser to show them that their options are not limited.

This ongoing myth is detrimental to the attitudes we are shaping in young designers and developers, as they may think that they are ruining a product’s aesthetic. Unlearning the lie that accessible design is not attractive will help all of us to prioritise design that works for everyone.

The “automated tools will fix all of these issues” myth

A lot of the time when we ask organisations what they are currently doing with their digital products to meet mandated accessibility requirements, they will tell us that their current method only involves using an automated checker to check their compliance. With so many organisations thinking that this is the way to go, educators might not see the value in teaching students about how to design with accessibility in mind. These automated tools are powerful, in fact, I use one as well. However, they are limited and kind of lazy if I’m being completely honest.

They’ll pick up on missing tags and some code validation issues, but lots of usability issues and more “unwritten” problems, like the order of form fields or instructions, which will only be found with usability testing (with a user who may have a learning or cognitive disability). Accessibility issues are complex and human, and we can’t really learn to work around them using just a validation checker. It’s not as simple as adding an alt attribute. The more we value manual evaluations of digital interfaces and content, as well as thorough usability testing with users who are alienated by mainstream design, the more we will improve our skills to design universally.

So you’ve graduated already and you’re already a working professional? What can you do to be a better designer or developer?


Edit 27/03/18 I brought up the topic of empathy at my talk at A11y Camp Sydney 2017. I got called out in the Q&A from a member of the audience who said that this is unethical as it appropriates peoples’ disability. I believe I am not in the place to have an opinion on this as a person who is not living with disability, but I want to clarify that 1) In the occasions that I have done these empathy exercises, it has always been alongside someone else with the same impairment who encouraged me to do so and 2) I’m not saying that empathy is enough to be inclusive and should replace proper inclusive research and development practices. I always recommend testing with real people with different access requirements, and doing your own research about this topic. Your design is only inclusive if you talk to different users living with disability.

I participated in Enabled by Design-a-thon twice, and both times kicked off the design process with “empathy exercises”. Many of the inspiring and innovative pitches were derived from these empathy exercises that included various simulations of memory, vision, and motor impairments as well as talking with people who live with disability. These exercises were always facilitated by health professionals and people who were living with that specific impairment.

Empathy exercises help us to get an idea about what problems users face when using a product or interface. My favourite project was from a team who were asked to put on band-aids while wearing arthritis gloves. They conceptualised a band-aid applier in the same kind of dispenser as white-out tape as a solution to the difficult task.

An example of an empathy exercise that my Hackathon team and I participated in at Enabled by Design-A-Thon. We had glasses that emulated various vision impairments and had to set up various devices with sim cards. Embarrassingly enough, this snippet captures me, frustrated and complaining about just the packaging.

Empathising seems obvious but I think it’s worth reiterating. We learn to utilise “empathy” in day one of any design degree, but it is often a fleeting thought that may not include some of the assistive technologies or scenarios people with disability have to go through. When design and dev teams try using the products they make with screen readers, using the “tab” key, or even voice input software, they will start thinking about the hurdles users might encounter when using a product. This seems to be the direction in which we are currently heading with places like Facebook and Microsoft supposedly creating teams dedicated to inclusive design.

Ask and teach “why”

I encountered some peculiar code once that made me laugh.

<span class=“h2”> insert text here </span>

This was written by a professional developer, and was an obvious 1.3.1 Info and Relationships failure. My initial reaction was amused astonishment. I had so many questions. Why did they make a whole class when they obviously knew what a <h2> was? Have they been doing this throughout their whole career? Don’t they teach you basic semantic HTML on the first day of IT or design school? And then it occurred to me that they probably were never taught why they had to use this tag.

They had obviously been taught what a “h2” is as they had named a whole class after the tag. They were competent enough to make a whole class and use it, which would yield the same visual results as an actual styled h2 tag. But perhaps they were never taught that properly marked up headings are important for assistive technologies. For example, a person who uses a screen reader when browsing through the page will not be able to understand that a heading exists as their screen reader will not be able to identify plain text that is visually styled as a heading. This person might also use headings as a form of navigation, but they won’t be able to do that when their screen reader won’t know that there is a heading because the developer didn’t put one there.

Sometimes as designers and developers we learn “best” practices but we don’t really understand how they may affect people or why these practices exist. A quick search on w3schools, where a lot of people go to learn development skills, reveals that there isn’t even any information about the importance of programmatically marked up headings. So how is someone supposed to know?

As learners and educators, we should always be talking about “why” we do something to avoid simple mistakes like this.

Check out communities

Documentation exists pretty much anywhere. We have discussions occurring in various channels that talk about anything from WCAG to assistive technologies or testing with users with various disabilities. Some cool places to check out: w3, Microsoft, Media Access Australia, and Wordpress A11y group (this Wordpress one is particularly cool because they are a group of volunteers working together to make Wordpress more accessible).

Another cool idea might be to make your own community. Before I mentioned how doing an external accessibility course won’t solve the systemic problem of accessibility not being continually taught or supported. If you do a course, or you decide to pursue more knowledge, share your insights with your colleagues to build a team of people working towards the same goal. Teach them empathy. Teach them why a certain design practice might be more beneficial for some users. Teach them why it matters.