This is Hard

Thoughts and frustrations on the state of accessibility and inclusion.

A young child in awe at the foot of a monumental staircase.

Photo by Mikito Tateisi on Unsplash

User Context

While discussing the need for design system documentation and wireframes to be component based, I once had a colleague assert that “the context of the user is the page”. I generously interpreted this as “the context of the component is the page” — which seems fair. But, I don’t believe this. And I certainly don’t believe a literal interpretation. First, in the ideal (and very unreal) scenario of having a small enough volume of content and a large enough screen so that an entire web page fits neatly within the viewport, the user is still not viewing it as a page or in its entirety. At best, they are scanning several sections in some order of importance to them — influenced by the order of importance emphasized by the design. This assumes a lot. Mostly, it considers context to be defined by the scenario of the device, with outputs like: a modern web browser; in a modern OS; on a large screen; on a desk; in a well lit space; with inputs like: a keyboard and a mouse; and that the user has actually and intentionally navigated to this page as retrieved from a fully constructed URL, and has not stumbled across some other abstraction of the page content. This of course also assumes they are not visually (or cognitively or motor or hearing) impaired; not distracted, not trying to complete a task, not frustrated, not trying to balance a device in one hand and a child in the other, or any other average daily life scenario. Context should always be considered as the entire context of the human. All humans.

The best explanation of this I have ever heard, was in a recent podcast: “Start with human experience: an audio essay from James Buckhouse”. Yes, James Buckhouse of Dreamworks, Twitter and Sequoia Creative Lab fame. I lack the vocabulary to convey just how moving and meaningful this is to me, and hopefully is and will be to everyone working in field of UX or design. It is so profoundly important, I invite you to please stop reading presently and go listen. It’s only 14 minutes. I’ll wait.

The line that resonated the most is “Everything happens in the context of someone else’s life story.” While most of us likely do not feel like we are “designing complements to the human condition”, you may have more impact than you realize. If you are designing for, developing for, influencing or are a stakeholder in web and digital experiences, your threshold of a minimum viable product should be usable with no negative impact. Neutral would be an improvement over the current state of the web.

The web as we know it

There are roughly 2.3 billion websites and 3.8 billion internet users. Although there is survey data — like this one from Gov.UK — that shows screen magnifiers and screen readers are fairly popular, it is hard to get comprehensive statistics on the volume or frequency of use, or number of users of any specific assistive technologies. Of those that report a disability and use screen readers, 83.4% rely exclusively on audio, according to the latest WebAIM survey. It is also hard to get statistics on the number of sites that fail accessibility criteria. It is easy to see however, that it is the majority. In the U.S., even 19 years after amending Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and 6 years after the revisions to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, each with clear mandates for Federal Agencies to provide comparable access, by some estimates, up to 80% still do not. Fortunately, this is changing thanks largely to the effort of 18F to create the U.S. Web Design Standards. It is also easy to see an escalating trend in volume and frequency of lawsuits against companies, organizations and institutions in the private sector thanks to Title III of the ADA ang growing legal precedent. It is clear there is a problem. It has many facets.

“By default HTML is accessible. As developers. it’s our job to not fuck it up.” — Estelle Weyl, author of at least 12 titles in HTML, CSS, Performance and Design.

Even web browsers are imperfect. On average, only about 80% of HTML5 features are accessibly supported across the latest versions of the top 5 web browsers (without having to supplement with ARIA or other workarounds) according to a handy tool called HTML5 Accessibility, developed by Paciello Group.

…and as it will be

According to Gartner, “By 2018, 30 percent of our interactions with technology will be through ‘conversations’ with smart machines.” as reported in “Market Trends: Voice as a UI on Consumer Devices — What Do Users Want?” Among these interactions, the web will be increasingly screenless.

As voice, touch, gestures, wearables, surfaces, haptics, proximity, augmentation, and automated agentive solutions enhance or disrupt the established modalities, we need to ensure that these smart systems and experiences are inclusive.

The world as we know it

According to the World Health Organization, over a billion people, about 15% of the world’s population, have some form of disability — and rates are increasing. In the U.S. alone, about 56.7 million people — 19% of the population, or nearly 1 in 5 people — had a disability in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Digital literacy may also be less than you think. Across 33 rich countries, only 5% of the population has high computer-related abilities, and only a third of people can complete medium-complexity tasks — per a 2016 OECD study. Although it is not regarded as a disability, basic language literacy is also a challenge. English isn’t the primary language at home for 21% of Americans. And average Americans read at a 7th grade level, with 21% below a 5th grade level.

…and as it will be

Every day the number of people over 65 jumps by 10,000. In developed countries, that will be 26% of the population by 2050. Perhaps ironically, in 2050 the web itself will turn 60 — emphasizing the fact that the majority of the aging population has had a lifetime on the internet.

You will likely be disabled – if not already. Just over 1 in 4 of today’s 20 year-olds will become disabled before they retire. In areas where the life expectancy is over 70, people spend on average 8 years or 11.5% of their life, living with disabilities. At a minimum, your needs will increase as you age. Between the ages of 25 and 60 the time users need to complete website tasks increases by 0.8% per year.

Why this is hard

Let me be clear. This is not a complete a list. I have consumed a rather large volume of information on accessibility, inclusion, and universal design in addition to my experiences as: a designer; a developer; a UX generalist; a speaker and advocate; an active participant in the community; and as a person with a visual impairment that seems to be accelerating with age. Despite a decade of paying close attention to the solution space, I am still discovering the problem space. Here are a dozen hard problems I see presently — in no particular order — with cursory descriptions:

1. Public Enemies

The former Commissioner of the FCC, Michael O’Reilly stated in 2015 just after the Open Internet Order (part of what we know as Net Neutrality) was passed: “It is important to note that Internet access is not a necessity in the day-to-day lives of Americans and doesn’t even come close to the threshold to be considered a basic human right. … People do a disservice by overstating its relevancy or stature in people’s lives. People can and do live without Internet access, and many lead very successful lives.” This was reported in Slate.

In July (2017), the Unified Regulatory Agenda was updated to place Title II and Title III of the ADA on the Inactive List (#1190-AA61) by the General Services Administration under direction from the White House as part of the Trump agenda to deregulate all things. By some estimates, this sets back Department of Justice regulation by 5+ years on Title II and 10+ years on Title III. This was among many “2017 Digital Accessibility Trends” addressed by Level Access.

In December (2017), the Department of Justice has announced the withdrawal of the Advance Notices of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRMs) pertaining to Accessibility of Web Information and Services in Title II and Title III of the ADA.

The current FCC, some offices of the GSA, the DOJ and White House are essentially reversing nearly 3 decades of internet freedom and nearly 2 decades of accessibility law.

Yet another public enemy emerges each time a defense attorney files a motion to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that the defendants’ inaccessible websites violate public accommodations of Title III of the ADA. Unless a judge denies the motion, the case is never tried and the business has no incentive to create accessible websites.

2. Categorization

We often — nearly always — describe people with disabilities as if they can all be categorized as “other”. We even use an acronym of PwD. When combined this way, it actually represents the world’s largest minority. While in certain cases, it is important to name and recognize an explicit disability, this generalization practice only serves to perpetuate exclusion and grant license to bias. We have to reframe this.

“Not ‘people with disabilities.’ Not ‘blind people and deaf people.’ Not ‘people who have cognitive disabilities’ or ‘men who are color blind’ or ‘people with motor disabilities.’ People. People who are using the web. People who are using what you’re building.” — Anne Gibson in “Reframing Accessibility for the Web” [2015, A List Apart]

3. Hiring and Diversity & Inclusion in Practice

When people with disabilities are so dramatically under- or unrepresented in the workforce — as they are today, and especially within companies that design and develop for the web — the product of the workforce is dismissive at best. Their needs have not been considered, because they have not been seen or expressed.

“When people with disabilities aren’t on the job, that means they’re not there to chime in when a design or idea is disastrously bad. It’s easier to make products and services that work for everyone when people with a range of experiences are creating them.” — Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility officer at Microsoft, in “Design For All” [2017, .future podcast]

4. Ignorance of the Problem and Solution

Despite a significant influx as a trending topic, web accessibility is still largely unknown. In some of the largest organizations with some of the largest collections of design awards, relatively few people are even aware of accessibility. Those that are, tend to think of it as a set of rules that constrain their design. Of course, this is not true, but it is rather difficult to unlearn the “must meet criteria” mindset.

Many agencies, companies and freelancers that design and develop websites on behalf of clients also seem to think that accessibility is only a client requirement. If the client asks for it and pays extra for it, they will endeavor to comply with WCAG.

A myth is oft perpetuated that making a website accessible is somehow more expensive and time consuming and requires specialists. While retrofitting a site that fails criteria can require additional time and resources, it is not a given. Sometimes, very simple things will go a long way to help assistive technology. For example, adding a language attribute to the <html> element of each page, and replacing some <div> elements with semantically correct options, and adding some meaningful alt text values. On an audit, these may look like long lists of issues and defects, but they are incredibly simple to refactor regardless of your operational hurdles. Further, when accessibility and inclusion are part of your design and development processes, it is not an added expense and should incur no additional time or resources.

Included in this lack of or limited awareness, is simple ethnographic research of how people with disabilities use websites and that a disability is not the only scenario a user would be challenged. There are many situations and periods in life perhaps due to an accident, surgery or medication where one may be impaired. There are many contexts where one may be obstructed, distracted or otherwise limited in their ability. Accessibility can improve all of these experiences.

Then, there is a very wide and diverse range of understanding of WCAG, its success criteria and conformance model. Unfortunately, but clearly the language of these guidelines is part of the problem space.

While it comes up in arguments in support of accessibility, almost never is it reported and discussed in other contexts that there are also significant SEO benefits that accompany accessibility. A simple solution for humans is also a solution for machines. Bots and scripts that crawl, scrape, parse and graph the web all collect better, more accurate and more structured data when a website is accessible. Lack of awareness of this win-win marketing advantage has created at least a decade of misdirection in how to improve search ranking and SERP features, and a significant neglect of the fact that search results exist to serve humans — all humans.

5. Ignorance of the Law

Forgive the broad generalization here, but it seems very few people that are aware of accessibility — even many of whom that are actively supporting it in their products and sites — are aware of the law. Lack of awareness is understandable, thanks in part to the perpetuation of inaccurate information, misuse and conflation of terms, and assumptions and claims that laws do or may not apply.

It is easy to see why. There are many laws that apply. There are many interpretations of them. Some apply only in certain areas. Most countries have their own laws. Most countries have ratified and signed international treaties, like the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In the U.S. there are also state laws. Laws change over time. And new precedent continues to be set by cases that are tried. It is hard to keep up. However, it’s not hard to get clear on the basics. For example, WCAG is not a law. Section 508 is not by itself a law. It is one of several sections of the Rehabilitation Act, which in 1998 was updated to include language requiring access of information and communication technology (ICT) provided by the Federal government to employees and members of the public with disabilities to the extent it does not pose an “undue burden.” This of course is separate from the Americans with Disabilities Act which includes sections for government and for places of public accommodation. I could go on and clarify and cite all of the applicable laws in the U.S. and some in Canada, U.K., EU and Australia. However I would encourage you to do some research and become familiar with the many laws and how they apply to your business or organization. But assume that all of your websites, web applications, native applications and other digital products and ICT are bound by laws to be accessible.

In addition to law, some businesses are contractually obligated to comply with compulsory standards of ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) and IEC (the International Electrotechnical Commission), which include accessibility. There are also policies and private contracts, as well as public claims that are each enforceable.

6. Apathy & Not My Problem

Perhaps more dangerous than being unaware is being uncaring. Being aware of an issue and choosing to do nothing may feel like apathy. To the person on the other end of the issue, it’s a menace. Similarly, being dismissive of the issue, attempting to rationalize an argument in your favor or simply making assumptions is irresponsible. If a company sells movie tickets online and makes a statement along the lines of “blind people don’t watch movies” or more specifically, “…don’t buy movie tickets”, they are not reporting on research or easily available sources (see Tommy Edison), they are exhibiting bias.

Visual designers aware of accessibility, but not proficient on the topic may think that once color contrast is handled in a style guide, their work is done and everything else is the developer’s job. Conversely, developers tasked with following visual design specs do not often challenge items that are questionable or feel empowered to make improvements. Of course neither is true, but the ‘not my problem’ mindset runs rampant in the ‘ship it’ environment.

“When you call something an edge case, you’re really just defining the limits of what you care about.” — Eric Meyer

7. Ethics

While it isn’t yet frequent or pervasive enough, it is increasingly imperative that companies convey and demonstrate their ethics beyond the simple platitudes regurgitated to media when it serves them. As Fjörd describes as a trend in The Ethics Economy, “organizations and companies will essentially be compelled to actively define their ideologies and publicly state their ethical beliefs — whether they want to or not.”

Design has influence and impact — whether intentional or not and whether positive or negative. Design principles are a set of guidelines or decision making criteria that should be considered when creating any new thing as is the goal of any design system. Common among these are statements like “be simple, not complex”, and “be consistent, not uniform”. These are all good. Unfortunately, few are as concerned with the human experience as they are with enforcing a brand. Fewer still are concerned with inclusion and the breadth of that experience.

Designers often assume no ethical culpability in their own work, let alone hold others to account and act to uphold an ethical principle when they observe questionable material.

“We need to fear the consequences of our work more than we love the cleverness of our ideas.” — Mike Montiero in A Designer’s Code of Ethics

8. Frameworks & Modern Development Practice

While most have seen improvements over years of iteration, the initial and many subsequent releases of popular CMS services like Wordpress and CSS frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation, as well as prior and persistent methods to reset, unset and normalize the browser’s default CSS all gave the practice of front end web development a sizable gain in efficiency. But they all came at great cost to accessibility. The web is accessible by default. Remove the defaults, and either or both of these occur: loss of accessibility; or loss of efficiency by having to add it back.

There are examples of this at an individual element and state level. One is the focus ring. When an element is in focus, all browsers have default style properties for this state of a light blue outline and/or focus ring. A trend emerged in concert with those CSS frameworks, where the arbitrary subjective opinion of many visual designers was that the outline was ugly. So it was intentionally removed.

Convenience, an illusion of control and opinions on aesthetics have won over smart fault-tolerant defaults and inclusion.

9. Requirements & Scoping

As I stated earlier, only when specifically requested by clients and stakeholders does accessibility find its way into: requirements documentation, statements of work, scoping exercises, project estimates, sprint plans, etc. in order to eventually be considered, designed, developed and tested for. This perpetuates a myth that accessibility can be a line item tacked onto a website project. It exacerbates the problem space. In my opinion, it is also ridiculous. Requirements are not written in a manner that explicitly and granularly defines criteria that should be a given, like “ensure the inclusion of a <body> element on each page”. A contract that states that a website should comply with WCAG 2.0 Level AA success criteria, is fine. However, it shouldn’t need to be written in order to consider it mandatory.

10. Reporting & Analytics

Most of the website tracking and analytics used within the industry gather all of the simple vanity metrics and some can track some fairly complex attribution and user interactions. Very few will report a user agent string that identifies the use of assistive technology like a screen magnifier or reader. Remarkably little is available to detect and track input devices. To my knowledge, nothing exists that can track when a user engages a browser’s reading mode or an operating system’s voice over assistant. Without this information, it continues to be quite difficult in predicting or proving the volume and type of use that indicate users with disabilities, impairments or preferences for assistance.

11. Ignorance of the Revenue Opportunity

Again, in the U.S. 19% of the population reports having a disability. By some estimates, this audience represents a trillion dollars in disposable income and missed revenue opportunity. What is worse is that when someone encounters a website where they are prevented from certain action or simply have a negative experience resulting from a failure to be accessible, they tend to go public. One bad encounter that goes viral can virtually blacklist a company in days adding a cumulative effect of lost revenue to missed revenue.

People with disabilities are already the world’s largest minority. Now, add those that do not identify as or self-report this, those that have more minor or temporary impairments, and all the generously complex contexts of the human experience and you have a very sizeable initial audience segment.

12. Cannibalism & Elitism

This area has been my most recent encounter with the problem space. Someone mentioned in a Slack conversation that “the #a11y community is known for eating it’s young.” While our advocacy is emboldened by technical knowledge and inspired by experience it is also often in reaction to things in which we find fault — including the effort of others and most unfortunately when their effort is well meaning and advocating the same topic.

Confession: there are two recent examples where I had unintentionally and unknowingly behaved in an elitist manner. One was in calling out the irony of insufficient contrast of the main text on an accessible color contrast tool. The other was in a public response to an accessibility tips article where the tips and main point were fantastic, but the author provided a background statement claiming that the law only requires government sites to be accessible. While that isn’t technically true, my response could have been more supportive, thoughtfully composed and private. I am quite passionate about accessibility, so I did not immediately recognize my own fault. Now that I have, I notice it everywhere. As a community whose purpose is including people, we need to better demonstrate that to each other.

What isn’t Hard

Learn. There is no shortage of great resources and greater people in the field of accessibility from which to learn.

Test. Always run automated accessibility audits on your sites throughout the design and development production cycle. Use DevTools, plugins, extensions, bookmarklets or any software you please. When recruiting participants for any type of usability testing, include people with disabilities, and allow them to use specific or preferred assistive technology in your test.

Question everything. A decade ago when smartphone browsing emerged as a design consideration, the web design community learned to question themselves and their teams and peers throughout the design process and product life cycles — “What about mobile?” or “Does it work on mobile?”. The same phenomena must occur now, and the question should be “Is it accessible?” Remember, you are designing for people, not screens.

Start small. Anywhere. Examine these and other problem spaces.

Making an accessible website is not hard. Eliminating operational hurdles may be, but you don’t need to change the world, only your own output. Eliminating organization bias may be, but you don’t have to influence everyone, only recognize it in your decisions. Being a legal expert may be, but you don’t have to cite the language of all the laws and cases, only accept that accessibility is a human right and therefore protected by law.

It isn’t hard to imagine the context of someone else’s life story. It also isn’t hard to ask them.

Tweetable Conclusions

You cannot know, predict, choose or control how someone will access your content.

Accessibility is about being usable, not meeting minimum rules.

Accessibility is not zero-sum. It is a net positive. More accessible for any given audience is inherently more accessible for all.

Accessibility is not optional.

Ability is a continuum.

The web is accessible by default.

The web is for people. All people.

Context is life, not a screen.