Table of Contents

Common Misconceptions About Digital Accessibility

Every year, the number of web accessibility lawsuits brought to federal court in the US sets a record, estimated to reach 4,220 by the end of this year, double that of 2018[1], [2]. While accessibility has always been important, the current environment is characterized by unprecedented pressure to get it right.

We are well beyond the point where accessibility is a novel topic; by now, most professionals in the IT industry are familiar with or have at least heard of it. However, the recent surge in interest has led to more professionals seeking to acquire accessibility competencies and more companies aiming to build accessible products. It appears that we are entering an era of maturity, marked by clearer roles and responsibilities. This development is indeed positive news. In the interest of inaugurating this new era on the right note, I find it relevant to dispel some common misconceptions. Here are four prevalent misconceptions about digital accessibility:

A Matter of Designers Following Best Practices 

This one is on us. We, as UX professionals, have played a role in perpetuating the idea that meticulous design ensures an accessible product. The reasons for this are not entirely clear to me; perhaps we were so eager to usher accessibility through the door that we didn't pay much attention to potential misconceptions. The conversation then often delves into compliant color contrasts, targets, and font sizes. Consequently, you find managers walking around, convinced that their product is accessible simply because the design adhered to accessibility standards. There are two misunderstandings at play here:

  • Not all UX Professionals are equally competent in Accessibility. “Design best practices” entail so much more than colors and sizes (e.g. designing appropriate controls for interactive elements, accounting for appropriate responsiveness, and delivering accessibility annotations during development hand-off...). Some professionals will have limited ideas about what Designing for Accessibility means, and it would be ill-advised to take their judgment as truth. 
  • At least half of Digital Accessibility is achieved through code. Even when the design team does everything right, you won’t have an accessible product without development doing its part. What this means is a proper encoding of the behaviors and attributes assistive technologies need to make the content available to their users. Quality assurance gets involved here too, verifying that the accessibility standards are being met. 

Screenshot 2023-12-26 at 10.14.18Figure 1. Accessibility annotations are key to a proper development hand-off by design, here we see some examples facilitated by Indeed Design's kit for Figma. Reproduced from their medium portal[3]. 

In short, while following design best practices is a key component, accessibility is only achieved through the engagement of every team along the product lifecycle.

An Automated Compliance Check  

The "We have Accessibility at home" approach is essentially based on the notion that, because there is a tool within the QA process conducting automated checks and addressing reported accessibility issues, there is no further need for consideration regarding accessibility.

This understanding, at best, is dubious. It's crucial to recognize that automated accessibility checkers have limitations. Most of these tools are structured around the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and their success criteria often necessitate human verification. Factors such as intuitive reading order, representative headings, contextually relevant alternative text for images, and comprehensible error messages, which are integral to the WCAG, require the nuanced assessment of an expert. While the best-automated tools can highlight which success criteria need additional validation, the absence of an expert in the team can pose challenges.

I would also advise against an excessive reliance on standards. Although the WCAG serves as a primary and esteemed reference, the landscape of accessibility needs is continually evolving alongside technology. Just this year, we received the WCAG 2.2 update to address more use cases. Accessibility is not a one-time effort but a dynamic entity. The optimal approach to staying ahead of the curve involves engaging with the individuals for whom accessibility exists, evaluating how our product performs for users of assistive technology, and integrating our learnings into the development process.

Knowing how to bridge the gaps between technical standards and the actual functionality your product delivers to its users is part of the expert knowledge associated with human factors, and this aspect cannot be automated. Becoming a usability specialist who is familiar with the diverse contexts of use of various assistive technologies available to users requires time and practice. It's essential to remember that people are the primary reason why we prioritize accessibility.

Similar to the preceding scenario, the challenge here is the tendency to consider a part as a whole. Automated tools play a crucial role in the accessibility process, offering efficiency and resource savings, but they should never be the sole method employed.

An Effort that Will Only Impact a Minuscule Slice of our Market 

“What benefit is there in working to ensure an accessible product when it will only benefit a tiny group of our users?” And then a percentage is thrown around, perhaps a 2%, maybe a 5%.

This question is a little more complex to deconstruct, as it results from several misconceptions piled on top of each other. Firstly, let's consider the numbers. Disability carries a social stigma; we tend to conceal and under-report it. Moreover, it is more prevalent in impoverished areas, which are challenging to reach and account for. Consequently, people with disabilities are at a significant risk of being undercounted, and the best data we have are estimates.

For the US, the 2022 American Community Survey provides an estimate of a 13.4% disabled population [4]. This may not sound like a substantial figure until one realizes it represents 44 million people. Let's assume your market is only those aged 15-34; even then, that's still 6 million people [4]. Some may argue that reaching 100% of a given market is unattainable. While that's true, I would urge you to examine your competitors. How many of them offer accessible products? Suddenly, the landscape appears more promising. One might conclude that brand fidelity and reputation can only be positively impacted by prioritizing accessibility. As consumers, we tend to remain loyal to companies that stand by us, especially when others do not.  

Screenshot 2023-12-26 at 10.17.23Figure 2. For a long time, iOS has been the leader in mobile accessibility[5], capturing a sizeable part of that market. Image taken from the Apple site[6] 

Secondly, it is by no means incorrect to associate accessibility with People with Disabilities. After all, it is a legal requirement thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, it would be narrow-minded to think that accessibility only serves people with disabilities. Disability, along with impairment, represents points along a spectrum where all humans exist. A near-sighted person may not be considered disabled, but they can still benefit from a user interface that does not strain their vision. As our senses decline with age, whether we fall into the “disabled” category or not, we seek products that better accommodate our abilities. We all benefit from accessibility, and sometimes it is challenging to articulate why or measure how much. The best recommendation I can offer is, if you are an able-bodied person: try an accessible product and observe how different the experience feels.

Sometimes people invoke numbers and statistics just to hide behind them. Let us be aware that the number of people with disabilities who would benefit from accessible products is by no means small. Among these beneficiaries, there exists an immeasurable number of people without disabilities too.

An Expensive Investment Deferred

I think we can all agree that reworking is always more expensive than... working? What I mean is that leaving accessibility for later will only make it costlier, regardless of how far along you are with product development. The logic at play here seems to be that if we didn't prioritize it from the start, it doesn't really matter when we do. We missed the window; it will cost us anyway, and right now there are many other things we should be investing in. All of that is fair, but it rests on the notion that the cost of accessibility will not increase, which is a falsehood. The longer your inaccessible product lives, the more complex it becomes, and changing processes becomes harder.

At the heart of this misconception lies another one that is essential to dispel: accessibility is not an add-on. It is not something you throw on top later; it is vital, it grows with your product, it is entrenched in it. You do not add floors to your home before checking the foundations. Imagine you did, and then you had to reinforce them; what a mess that would make. That is what leaving accessibility for later is like—the longer you postpone it, the harder it is to achieve.

Now, is accessibility “costly”? I suppose that mainly depends on the size of your operation. On the one hand, accessibility requires expert knowledge and should be compensated accordingly, lest we fall back into misconception number 1. On the other hand, accessibility is a legal requirement, meaning non-compliance can result in lawsuits. Settlements have reached as high as the $6 million Target had to pay in damages when sued by The National Federation of the Blind, $755,000 for the National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix, or $100,000 for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) v. HRB Digital LLC and HRB Tax Group, Inc [7]. Surely, those amounts are enough to cover a few salaries. Did I mention that these companies were also required to make their products accessible? No matter how you look at it, the best time to start investing in accessibility is always now.

What Digital Accessibility Could Be 

When thinking of better worlds, I think it is important we develop visions. I would like to offer mine on what an integrated accessibility effort looks like.  
To begin with, accessibility needs ownership, being such a cross-team effort, it is extremely easy to lose track of it or not know who to answer to. Having an Accessibility Manager would really help with that. Additionally, it requires expertise in different areas: 

  • Designers that truly follow “Best practices” and include proper and extensive accessibility annotations in all their development hand-offs.
  • Developers that are familiar with the WCAG success criteria and how they translate into suitable uses of HTML elements, roles, and attributes, including ARIA.
  • QA Engineers who can set up appropriate test cases to verify WCAG compliance, identify the areas responsible for different fixes, and make appropriate recommendations.
  • Researchers who can facilitate functional testing sessions with users of assistive technology, turning any findings into actionable insights for the other teams. 

    This may sound overwhelming, but I never said accessibility was a “go big or go home” kind of effort. You can start small and build from there. It is likely that some of your team members already possess the right expertise or require minimal training to attain it. Perhaps you have already identified what you need, and all that is missing is that final nudge. Alternatively, you can reach out to an accessibility expert for a diagnostic that will help you begin to make sense of what Accessibility IS.

Acknowledgment

This piece was written by Fermin Chavez at Encora.

About Encora

Fast-growing tech companies partner with Encora to outsource product development and drive growth. Contact us to learn more about our software engineering capabilities.

References 

[1]    J. Avila, “Web Accessibility Lawsuits: 2022 Recap and What to Expect in 2023,” Level Access. Accessed: Dec. 08, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.levelaccess.com/blog/web-accessibility-lawsuits-2022-recap-and-what-to-expect-in-2023/ 

[2]    G. Alexiou, “Website Accessibility Lawsuits Rising Exponentially In 2023 According To Latest Data,” Forbes. Accessed: Dec. 08, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/gusalexiou/2023/06/30/website-accessibility-lawsuits-rising-exponentially-in-2023-according-to-latest-data/ 

[3]    S. Hagadorn, “Building an Accessibility Library,” Indeed Design. Accessed: Dec. 08, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://medium.com/indeed-design/building-an-accessibility-library-e134e9012c17 

[4]    “S1810: Disability Characteristics - Census Bureau Table.” Accessed: Dec. 05, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://data.census.gov/table/ACSST1Y2022.S1810?q=Disability

 [5]    S. Aquino, “When it comes to accessibility, Apple continues to lead in awareness and innovation,” TechCrunch. Accessed: Dec. 08, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/19/when-it-comes-to-accessibility-apple-continues-to-lead-in-awareness-and-innovation/ 

[6]    “Accessibility,” Apple. Accessed: Dec. 08, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.apple.com/accessibility/ 

[7]    “Largest Web Accessibility Lawsuits [ Top 5 ],” whoisaccessible.com. Accessed: Dec. 05, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.whoisaccessible.com/guidelines/largest-web-accessibility-lawsuits/ 

 

 

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