When it comes to digital products such as websites or apps, I’d imagine most of us can recall some type of frustrating interaction while using them. For the 61 million American adults with disabilities, and over 1 billion worldwide, the lack of accessibility within a digital product can turn a normally frustrating experience into one that significantly impairs the ability to fully utilize its desired use.

The World Wide Web Consortium, the main international standards organization for the Internet, outlines how digital services and tools should be made accessible to all, including users with impairments to their vision (sight impaired and color-blind), hearing, mobility (i.e., those who find it difficult to use an input device, like a keyboard or mouse), or cognitively (i.e., dyslexia, autism or learning difficulties). While this is not an exhaustive list, it gives you an idea of the range of accessibility concerns that should be considered and addressed when updating or developing a website.

A couple of examples come to mind. A visually impaired user may use screen-reader software that will audibly speak a website’s contents to them. If a website is not coded properly, the software will not know what to say and key pieces of information could be left out. Visually impaired users also may have a tough time reading text if there isn’t sufficient contrast between the text color and the background color. Hearing impaired users often rely on subtitles or captions for videos with voiceovers. If they are not present, the user has to rely on the content of this video to fully communicate the message, which it may not do.

Over the past few years, many businesses have been slapped with litigation to remediate their inaccessible digital products. The most common result ends up being a swift “band-aid” type of fix in order to comply with the somewhat ambiguous guidelines that exist. This type of remediation, while technically valid, does not address the core issue that the product was not built with a human-centered, inclusive approach to design and development.

Now more than ever, it’s important to build a culture of accessibility within your design and development teams to ensure all users have equal access to your product. As with most things in the world, this is easier said than done, but consider the following steps to begin to engrain accessibility as a standard practice across your organization.

First, you will need buy-in from your designers, developers, and the management team. While most would agree an inclusive product is important, the implementation likely wasn’t taught as part of a curriculum and the term may be somewhat foreign to many higher-up decision makers. Your product may not be intentionally exclusive, but some teams have yet to fully understand the impact accessibility can have for those with a disability.

One area to stress is that an accessible product will benefit everyone, no matter their physical or cognitive abilities, because it represents a clean and intuitive user experience. For example, the ability to tab through a website’s form fields can make all users more productive, not just those who rely on a keyboard instead of a mouse. Also, consider the ripple effect of having an inaccessible product. Not only are you preventing users with disabilities from using your product, you’re also diminishing the skillset of the people who are building the product, which can have unanticipated and cascading business and legal problems.

Like any initiative, accessibility requires constant attention in order to engrain it in an organization’s culture. Create a group of Accessibility Champions that are the primary advocates for accessibility on their respective teams. This group of Champions should include anyone who touches the design, development, and quality assurance of the product. This approach can help ensure each team is prioritizing accessibility at all stages of the product life cycle, and help give everyone who touches the product the sense that accessibility is a part of their role. This group of Champions can also provide accessibility training during the onboarding process of new employees, and also showcase/demo accessibility wins on a regular basis.

If you already have an existing product, it’s not too late to bring accessibility to the forefront. Start by conducting an accessibility audit for your product and sync up with your sales and/or customer support team to determine if customers have experienced friction with your product due to inaccessibility. From there, create and execute a clear plan for who can make changes and how you’re testing to ensure accessibility features are not unintentionally removed.

Once you have implemented these new features into specific areas, take a holistic view of your product. In the User Interface (UI), individual components are put together like puzzle pieces, and just because each piece is accessible on its own doesn’t mean the entire UI will be. Since the UI involves multiple components talking to each other, you’ll need to ensure that the experience is usable and accessible as a whole.

Building a culture of accessibility doesn’t happen overnight, but you can start with a few small changes that have a greater collective impact and build from there to make it a part of your entire product development workflow. Most importantly, making an actionable, conscious commitment to accessibility will contribute to building a better and more inclusive product in the end.

Originally published by the Rochester Business Journal

Chris Markham

Senior Director - Web Development

As an experienced Digital Developer, Chris is always implementing new and creative solutions to help websites reach their full potential. Chris possesses a unique and valuable combination of both visual and technical skills.