Digital accessibility

How “creatives” can make digital a place made up off, with, and for all

The use of the term “creative” in this text should be read as broadly as possible. By “creative” is meant a person who looks at the world with a critical eye and seeks through its daily actions to create a more fraternal society for anyone, regardless of ethnicity, belief, education, social condition or limitations.

It is always interesting to start any debate around the topic of digital accessibility by the very definition of the concept. In this field, as in many others related, consensus is not necessarily easy to achieve. But regardless of approaches or perspectives it will not be inappropriate to define digital accessibility as the possibility for anyone, regardless of their physical or psychic limitations, to access an information or service through any digital product or interface.

Myths of accessibility

Any thinking around the topic of accessibility is impossible to begin without thinking first about the myths — and they are quite a few — that go around this concept. Usually all the myths that surround this topic reflect a lack of information, because when we explore them more deeply, we see that they are ordinary places and in practice they have very little concrete.

One of the most recurrent myths, and perhaps less truthful, is that bringing the issue of accessibility to a digital project is extremely costly. In other words, making a product — be it a website, an app or any other — that can be used by people with different types of limitations is something that will greatly increase the final price of the project.

On the other hand, another of the recurring myths is that the number of users that we are eventually talking about is not relevant to the sales or reach that we may want to achieve with the project. There is this misconception that the number of users possibly related to accessibility is too small and because of that should be discarded. In this myth there is also a premise that should be the opposite of the vision, mission or values of any brand: equating that someone can “discarded” just because it does not fit the “perfect consumer” profile the brand seeks or the advertising may want to sell. Should not brands, beyond fundamental agents of the economy, also be key players in the change of the society?

The commonplaces of digital

The conversation of the myths about accessibility become more complex when we come across what are the commonplaces of digital and in which anyone easily recognizes as truths these days.

To say in these days that digital reaches more and more people is a redundancy. It is undeniable, even for the most skeptical, that digital is now part of everyday life in contemporary societies. It is not only present in the relationship of brands with consumers but also in the most functional operations of our day-to-day life and is already a tool without which the economy could not survive. At least not as we know it today.

Associated to this commonplace, it is not too difficult to find another, the one that because of the increasing presence of digital in the daily lives of societies there is more and more “information” circulating. Although the word “information” deserves a lot of quotation marks in these days, it is not difficult to recognize that the digital has greatly democratized the access to the data, which in some moments can generate more and better information, and that in some way could generate more in-depth knowledge not only of the environment that surrounds us but also of ourselves.

Fundamental question

The context of thinking about the subject of accessibility becomes more interesting when, on this perspective, we begin to combine what are its myths and what we consider as the commonplaces of digital, and it is not very difficult at any point to reach a fundamental question: if we live in an increasingly digital society where more and more information is available, is this information accessible to all people regardless of their differences?

The answer to this question is, today, disappointing: no. This information is not accessible to everyone. It is a privilege that many users, many people, cannot access much because of their limitations or differences.

As much hard as it may be, if we look at the subject in a very pragmatic way, it is not too complicated to realize that most of the digital products that we deal usually forget the use of people with some kind of disability.

Does this statement make any sense? Is it a pessimistic view? Let’s see.

Current scenario

In 2013 the Information Society Department of the Foundation for Science and Technology, a Portuguese public institute, carried out a study that analyses the 338 institutional websites that make up the universe of higher education establishments in Portugal. From this analysis it was possible to conclude that 0 (a fairly rounded number) complied with the level A requirements of the WCAG accessibility guidelines recommended by the W3C International Consortium, which allows websites to be classified on a three-level scale of compliance: A, AA, and AAA.

Although the data are from the year 2013, the result of this study itself reflects a not very encouraging scenario, even more if we look at the fact that according to Portuguese legislation all sites in the public sphere in Portugal should guarantee their users an AA level of compliance with the accessibility guidelines (WCAG). Moreover, in the specific case of this study, we are not even talking about something we can consider superfluous. We are talking about education, one of the pillars of modern democracies.

Through this scenario, common sense will say that reality these days is much better. That this 2013 study does not reflect what is the current situation. It is true that the study has some time and was done in a very concrete context, the Portuguese. But it is also very easy to check on that.

Let’s do each one of us the following exercise. Let’s look at the sites we use in our day-to-day life, and then we’ll test where those sites are in the accessibility guidelines (WCAG) through tools such as Access Monitor of the Foundation for Science and Technology. What results will we be waiting for? Will the websites we use every day be prepared to be used by everyone? It’s easy to answer, just test!

Users that are also people

Even when we look at many of the studies that tell us the not-so-encouraging scenario of accessibility, or when we prove in which point are the digital products we use in our day-to-day lives, sooner or later a recurring sentence appears in the discussion. A sentence that almost legitimizes the forgetting of accessibility: “but the number of users we are talking about is not relevant.”

First of all it would be important to remember that they are not simply “users”. They are people, real people, almost all of them with fantastic examples and testimonies of life. People who, even with all their differences, can tell us through the experiences of their day-to-day life that it is impossible not to believe that anyone can overcome itself.

Real people such as Abel, Abílio, Adelaide, Adriano, Afonso, Alberto, Alexandre, Alice, Amadeu, Ana, Anabela, André, Anselmo, Antero, Armanda, Artur, Baltasar, Bárbara, Beatriz, Bernardo, Bianca, Bruno, Cármen, Catarina, Cátia, Cesária, Cláudia, Cláudio, Conceição, Dália, Damião, Daniel, David, Delfim, Diana, Dinis, Diogo, Dora, Eduarda, Fábio, Fátima, Fernando, Filipa, Florbela, Gabriela, Graça, Idália, Isabel, Ismael, Ivo, João, Joaquim, Júlio, Laura, Laurinda, Leonardo, Lídia, Lourenço, Lúcia, Luísa, Madalena, Mafalda, Márcia, Marcos, Margarida, Maria, Mariano, Marina, Marta, Martim, Maura, Melissa, Miguel, Moisés, Nádia, Natália, Nélson, Norberto, Pascoal, Patrício, Paula, Pedro, Sabrina, Salomé, Sandra, Sérgio, Silvano, Sílvio, Tatiana,Tiago, Valter, Vicente, Victor or Vilma, represent not only the faces behind the “number of users that are not relevant” but also the belief that much remains to be done in their inclusion also in the digital area.

The truth of numbers

Numbers are often an argument for the accessibility topic to be left behind. Often, to say that the “number of users that is not relevant” is more than enough to, in the development of a new digital product, accessibility concerns are classified only as “benefit” rather than classified as “essential”. However, when we overcome all the prejudices or stereotypes we may have and seek the truth behind the numbers and statistics, we easily see that the number of users related to the accessibility issue is not as irrelevant as that.

For example, according to the 2001 census in Portugal the number of people with some type of physical or mental disability was 636,059, this represent about 6% of the Portuguese population. Although these data refer only to a local reality — the Portuguese one — they also represent situations where the limitations are quite pronounced. But there is a much wider range of limitations which can in many cases go unnoticed by most people, but these often become very difficult barriers to overcome each day.

One of these limitations may be color blindness, for example. Color blindness is characterized by a visual disturbance usually of genetic origin that essentially affects the interpretation and partial or total color distinction. It is an incapacity that affects mostly men. The difficulty in reading and distinguishing colors may seem somewhat insignificant, but in many cases it becomes a rather significant limitation. Just imagine the volume of information that is transmitted to us every day, whether through digital interfaces or even signage or packages of products; many are the spaces and formats in which color beyond an emotional dimension is also informative.

Also in this very concrete limitation the numbers reflect a fairly comprehensive reality. According to estimates by some non-governmental organizations it is estimated that approximately 10% of the world’s male population — some 350 million people — suffer from some form of color blindness. Of these 350 million people worldwide, 59% identify only a few colors; 37% do not know what type of color blindness they suffer; 64% believe that confusion in color perception is their biggest problem; 52% feel that it is quite difficult to be socially integrated; 90% ask for help when buying clothes.

When we look at all these numbers accurately it is almost impossible to believe that these percentages of people may not be relevant to any brand. Beyond the framework of values that can and should guide the action of a brand in creating a more inclusive economy, in terms of public and potential business opportunities will these groups of people be so irrelevant? Can brands in the development of their digital products not to bring the topic of accessibility to the project, excluding all these segments?

Creatives” opportunity

There is a moment in the debate and work on accessibility that can simply become a number war or what may or may not be more relevant in terms of brand span or strategy. The moment you simply begin to calculate who can or should not be left out of the focus of a developing digital product is the time when “creatives” can and should make all the difference.

“Creatives” whatever the field of work are natural “problem solvers.” Basically, regardless of education or experience, a “creative” — in the truest and broadest use of the term — is someone who looks around, meets and resolves the challenges of everyday life. See what no one sees in the most unusual ways possible. Is worried about who often no one cares. Believes that the world is much more than a gigantic cluster of bits and bytes, business plans or impersonal statistics.

“Creatives” are also responsible for almost everything that marks our daily lives. Messages, content, products or services are increasingly the result of ideas with the potential to “change the world”.

There is, throughout all latitudes, a whole generation that is no longer ruled by the simple differences of age but by the global and digital vision that has of the world, which is building our day-to-day life through all its work, through digital experiences and interfaces often done at odd hours with a transcendent dose of dedication and an almost unrealistic investment.

Are these “creatives” who through all that they create every day, that can build the foundations of an increasingly inclusive worldwide web, not with great revolutions but taking the topic of accessibility to the center of their ideas.

And the most ridiculous of all this? Accessibility in the digital context is no monster once it costs no fortunes, on the contrary to what common sense will say and it also does not require complex implementation or validation processes. Accessibility in digital, a bit like the essentials of life is decided through the little things.

Little things

To say that accessibility in the development of digital products is decided on in little things may at first sight seem too simplistic. But if we look closely at the issue and how this topic can be approached, this “simplistic” idea is not really far from the truth.

But which little things are these? Are things really that little?

Any digital product — a website, an app or another solution — during its development process usually has a strong component of interface drawing — design — and implementation — code — two fundamental steps. Whether its design or code, these are two key moments in the project to wonder how our product will integrate the little things related to accessibility.

In the design we may question, for example, such pragmatic things as:

  • Is our interface so simple that it can be understood by any user? Regardless of their physical or psychological limitations?
  • Is it possible to use the keyboard only to use our product? How do you navigate through the elements?
  • How are the color contrasts in our product? Do these contrasts make it easier to read the elements? At some point in the project were we able to test these contrasts?
  • Are the actions and buttons in our interface clearly identified? And are our measurements comfortable for anyone?
  • Are we using forms in our product? Can we use some of the best good practices for designing these elements?

Also in code we can think about, for example, little things like:

  • How will the code be interpreted by a screen reader? Can we facilitate this interpretation?
  • Does our code follow the best practices in terms of semantics of HTML? Is it easy to see the structure of the page through this code?
  • Could it be possible to increase the text elements? When they are changed do these elements on the page retain their formatting?
  • Is it possible for the content management tool to enter alternative text for photos? Is this alternative text being used well?
  • How are we integrating accessibility guidelines into our code? What is the conformity classification of our product?

None of these questions — whether in the design or the code — require that in a design of a new digital product significant changes or transformations are made. All these little things are simple improvements that can be introduced at one time or another and they will greatly improve the way our product integrates what are the good practices of accessibility and consequently the daily use, for anyone regardless of their limitations.

But attention, working the accessibility component in a digital product is first of all to admit with all humility that nothing is taken for granted. It is necessary to never lose the critical sense, stop looking for new solutions, stop investigating or share ideas with the community. It is never forget to test with real people the work that we are developing and the way to learn from the context of everyday life are the essential challenges.

Thinking for minorities

On the assumption that accessibility work is essentially a task related to small things in design that can greatly improve the use of our digital products, it is equally important to imagine how we can strategically integrate more and more inclusive thinking.

Any project, any idea, starts in most of the times of a scenario. Whether it is a scenario documenting a need or an ambition, this context is based on real or fictional people. From this moment the project is growing and fulfilling steps behind steps until reaching its end. However, almost all of this scenario is thought of in an ideal context where everything is perfect and everything goes well.

So what if in the definition of these scenarios instead of imagining our user as perfect we think he might have some sort of limitation? If we imagine that instead of being able to use our digital product with all its faculties you have some kind of physical or psychic barrier? With this type of exercise we are not — far from this — compromising the development context of our project. On ther hand, we are rather extending our scope including in the strategy different types of users.

Including project people with different types of constraints is a valuable exercise in an early stage to bring accessibility thinking to the center of the discussion. Working in a context where the user of our digital product has some type of limitation allows us to not only allow it to enjoy our work but also does not in any way exclude the use by people in their full physical and psychological capacity.

Above all, what this exercise does is include minorities, while not excluding majorities. Including minorities also includes majorities, and the opposite is almost never found.

Why is this important?

When the subject of accessibility becomes a reference premise and makes a point of introducing it to the development of any digital product, we often take the risk of hearing the same question: “But why do I have to worry about this? It is not within the scope of my project.”.

The answer is anything but mathematical and is far from consensual. But, first of all, this is precisely what “creatives” do, think of people, regardless of their ethnicity, belief, education, social condition, or limitations. Then, and not least, because we believe, we “the creatives”, the true “creatives”, that the world will be a much richer place if instead of looking at our differences, look at what makes us truly equal.

It is difficult to change the whole world at once and in one day but for sure that the little things of everyday life that create great changes.