A web that excludes only people with disabilities

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

There is, unfortunately, a silent consensus around the web that making your product accessible is an optional task. For many web developers it is a nice-to-have feature, not a core requirement since lack of accessibility would be an obstacle for a limited part of your target audience only. But is it really so?

Moral imperatives

In discussions about the necessity of creating websites accessible for everyone, the first and most important argument is usually connected to the moral imperative: we should care about providing for people with disabilities. We should provide everyone with a possibility to operate the site without any substantial barriers. However, the problem with moral imperatives is that while we all agree with them, not many people actually adhere to them. Even if everyone knows that it should be done, this does not mean that it will be done.

It is no surprise that in case of public institutions the moral imperative was finally replaced with a legal one should was replaced with must. But it is the only thing that has changed and it can potentially be even more devastating. Strengthening the imperative without changing the mindset can, for example, result in adding accessibility features to an already finished product instead of designing with accessibility in mind right from the start. This is because accessibility is not treated seriously in the first place.

Accessibility as a business

However, accessibility support can also be a business — and a profitable one, too! Assistive technologies are services and products that can make the digital life of people with disabilities easier. This is how JAWS screen reader works — its popularity makes it a de facto standard on the market that software like CKEditor must support just like it supports the most popular web browsers.

If accessibility support is a service provided by competing products, then it is natural to expect that its quality should improve. And this is happening indeed. The more effort and money is invested, the more accessible the final product is. It is not a shame to earn money from doing something right, but there is still a room for improvement as we need to abandon the idea that accessibility as a business is a special service only for people with disabilities.

Selfish accessibility

This is when we stumble upon the biggest issue: disability awareness. Accessibility seems so “exclusive” because people tend to think that it does not apply to them as they are able-bodied (at the moment). But the problem is that this belief can be very temporary. It really takes a relatively small amount of clumsiness to stumble across a pet’s toy and lose an eye by hitting the edge of a cupboard… It is not even necessary to become a victim of a tragic accident — getting old is enough on its own (yup, in our super modern, advanced world we are still getting old!).

The fact that we are able-bodied today does not mean we will be so tomorrow. The veil of ignorance concept is often used in the context of accessibility and explains why we should develop web projects today as if we were to become people with disabilities tomorrow. Design in a way that is accessible to everyone, because there is always a chance that we will need this accessibility ourselves.

I could serve as an example here: I did not get interested in accessibility because I am a perfect citizen full of social responsibility. I have become interested in accessibility because I am slowly losing my eyesight. It is totally plausible that I will become blind in the next 5 to 10 years. Even today I tend to use sites with higher contrast, easy to zoom, with bigger font… This may seem inappropriate, but I am fighting for accessibility mostly for myself, however selfish this sounds. But then again, selfish accessibility is not a new concept. It is an approach based on empathy, on a simple thought experiment: “what if…?” Accessibility is no longer an “exclusive” addition or service. It helps to look at web development from a wider perspective and it works.

The selfish accessibility approach allowed to create a new way of thinking in web design — inclusive design. The main rule of it is dead simple: websites must be for all — or at least for an audience that is as wide as possible. The whole process should start right with the design of the website — as accessibility should be the foundation of the product, not a mere add-on and not only for people with disabilities, but for all people. For us.

But if we want this future to become true, we cannot allow for any ignorance. We should evangelize how to design for everyone. Without this we could wake up some day in a web that excludes only people with disabilities…