By: Ryan Hatch
I took a broadcast journalism class in college, one designed to teach us how to shoot, edit, and produce a three or four minute video story, not unlike what you see every evening on the nightly news. I don’t remember much about how to do any of it. Tuition well spent.
What I do remember, all these years later, is the first day of class. We spent the hour watching, then (to my horror) acting out and filming, a particular scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally. Over and over, we dissected the varying camera angles, the avoidance of jump-cuts, the “rule of thirds,” and so on. The scene was maybe 45-seconds long, yet it proved incredibly complex, beyond anything I’d ever considered when watching a movie or TV show. Since that day, I can hardly watch anything without thinking about everything that goes into creating it, the painstaking work required to make even the simplest of scenes look smooth. You can’t unsee the sausage get made. And you know what, I like it.
I bring this up because, for the last several weeks, I’ve spent hours researching accessibility as it pertains to web and app design and development. To level-set: digital accessibility is the practice of building online products that can be used and enjoyed by everyone, including those with auditory, visual, motor, cognitive, and speech disadvantages, among others. According to the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, around 25% of U.S. adults have a disability, and the number is 40% for those 65 and older. And by 2035, the U.S. Census reports that for the first time in history Americans older than 65 (78 million) will outnumber people under 18 (76.7 million). In other words, digital product accessibility is not a waning issue. Further proof: more than 2,250 accessibility lawsuits were filed against web providers in 2018 alone; that number is expected to at least double in ‘19.
The hours researching web accessibility has led me to videos like this one and stories like this one. It’s brought me to drawings like this one and, throughout, has reminded me of teammates from childhood who wore helmets while batting and while standing in the field during t-ball. It’s reminded me of grandparents since passed who, later in life, had trouble reading the Christmas cards I wrote or remembering that I was in 12th grade, not 12 years old (though acted it).
As a result of this, my daily perusing of apps and websites has me viewing them through a different lens, unable to shake the idea that when I have user-experience frustrations (often!), those with disability challenges surely have it worse, and likely sometimes can’t use these products at all. The simplest things on my phone — reading the news, texting someone — I take for granted. For others, these are laborious tasks perhaps filled with dread. So now, in my own design and UX work, I’ve begun considering what those challenges and hurdles might be, hopefully, if incrementally, helping mitigate problems down the line for users with disability challenges. I think it’s a good thing that I, and many others, have started thinking and talking more about accessibility and how we can improve the digital experiences we create.
But that’s not enough. It’s not enough, simply, for me to sit behind a computer and merely think about how someone who is disadvantaged may want to experience the site. I don’t know; I’m guessing and, worse, projecting my assumptions. Unfortunately, when building and shipping digital products, speed often takes priority. Get it out the door, ship it, load it, get the site up, more more, faster faster. The pressure is understandable — it’s a business after all, and the coolest, most dynamic site in the world does the bottom line no good if it isn’t available for use. But is that the digital world we want to live in? One that skirts research and user testing among not only those with disability challenges, but all users? An unpleasant fact about many of the accessibility lawsuits filed each year is that they end in settlements, the thinking that it’s cheaper and quicker to pay people off than recommit to building a new website. First, that’s probably not the most sustainable business model; and second, gross.
There are better ways of doing business. First, digital products can be tested cheaply and efficiently to make sure standards are being met — the BOIA is a good place to start. Second, if wanting to meet not just minimum requirements but create strong user experiences, actually test the product with users — that means everyone, not just 75 percent of the population. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive. Fifty people aren’t required to test a prototype; once even four or five users give feedback a product can start to make shape and iterations can happen quickly. No, it’s not as easy to find several visually-impaired people as it is five sighted users to test a site, but it’s easier (and cheaper) than having to settle lawsuits years down the road, not to mention the ethical reasons for making products inclusive.
As nice as it’d be, sometimes, to go back a few decades before all these devices were at our fingertips 15 hours a day, the reality is we’re only becoming more dependent on these technologies. Most of the time it improves our quality of life, opening up the world around us. Everyone should get to experience it.