Integrating Accessibility Coverage Early in the Development Process

Michael Ventura & Enrique Urzua | September 08, 2023

Historically, "accessibility" has referred to designs that enable people with disabilities to interact with buildings, products, services, and more. In today's digital age, web applications and sites must also adhere to these principles of inclusivity. As professionals in the IT industry, it is crucial to ensure that our services, whether web applications, sites, mobile apps, and more, are accessible to all users.

Accessibility isn't merely an item on a checklist during the development process; rather, it is an essential component of producing high-quality websites and web tools without excluding users. The importance of web accessibility came into focus in 2019 when a US Court, referencing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), ruled that the services of online retailers must be fully accessible. This ruling precipitated a series of guidelines that have significantly influenced the development process of all present and future websites and apps.

When to Consider Accessibility in the Site or Application?

The short answer to this question is right away. Accessibility should be a fundamental consideration from the outset of any development project. By proactively incorporating accessibility into our design and development processes, we can ensure that our websites and applications are inclusive from the start.

If your application is already live, it would be beneficial to conduct an accessibility audit with the available tools to identify potential areas of enhancement and make your digital products more user-friendly.

Accessibility Essentials

To start, let's delve into essential web accessibility best practices, starting with Semantic HTML and proper document structure.

Semantic HTML5 elements help improve website structure and SEO, thereby boosting accessibility. Proper organization of content using headings and sections simplifies interpretation and effectively conveys information for screen readers.

Consideration for keyboard-only navigation is crucial, as many users rely on it to surf the web. Designing websites with this in mind allows all users to navigate effortlessly, and implementing focus management and skip links streamlines the user experience.

Color contrast significantly enhances readability for individuals with visual impairments. Striking the right balance of color contrast improves inclusivity.

Descriptive alt text conveys complete and crucial information about images to help visually impaired users. Since images are integral to modern web design, the alt text simplifies the experience for visually impaired users. 

With the increase in mobile device usage, prioritizing mobile accessibility and creating responsive designs that cater to various screen sizes is critical. By optimizing touch targets, we can guarantee a smooth experience for users on the go.

Accessibility Tools

Familiarizing ourselves with popular assistive technologies and tools used by individuals with disabilities is vital to developing accessible websites. Tools like Google Lighthouse, Axe, and Wave can facilitate thorough accessibility testing and audits, thus ensuring compliance and optimal accessibility.

Frameworks and libraries enhance workflow efficiency. Several tools, like Reach UI and ARIA-React in popular frameworks like React, help create inclusive web applications. By understanding their accessibility features, we can integrate accessibility seamlessly into our development process and ensure an inclusive user experience.

Incorporating accessibility is ideal for projects that are still in the planning and organizational phases. The W3C offers extensive guidelines for compliance with all accessibility recommendations.

After launching your application or website, it's important to continually audit to ensure adherence to these guidelines. Audit tools can help keep you on track with accessibility.

Accessibility During the Development Process

Having outlined the relevance and tools related to accessibility, let's delve into its impact on the development process. Accessibility isn't merely about compliance or circumventing lawsuits, though those are certainly critical factors. Rather, it is about inclusivity, providing equal opportunities, and enhancing the user experience for all.

Recent studies reveal that almost 98% of the top 1 million websites fail to meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the recognized standard for web accessibility. This lack of accessibility restricts millions of users, hindering their full participation in the digital world.

Embracing accessibility early in the development process reduces adaptation time, increases accessibility coverage, and ensures compliance with standards established by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Thus, accessibility is not only a moral imperative but also a strategic advantage in the digital space.

Accessibility Best Practices

Some of the basic aspects to consider to ensure accessibility principles during the development process are:

  • Prioritize web accessibility early for cost-effectiveness and efficiency.
  • Utilize tools like automated testing and screen readers to enhance accessibility.
  • Recognize the legal mandates for web accessibility in many global regions.
  • Implement effective alt text and ARIA roles to support assistive technology.
  • Ensure keyboard accessibility for universal and effortless navigation.
  • Emphasize mobile accessibility, adapting for touch interactions and varying screen sizes.

Key Takeaways

  1. Developers should consider web accessibility early in the development process for efficiency and cost-effectiveness, which will help avoid potentially costly rework later. 
  2.  Tools to improve web accessibility include automated testing tools, screen readers, and browser extensions.
  3.  Legal requirements for web accessibility exist in many regions, including the U.S. and the European Union. Legislation such as the ADA in the U.S. mandates web accessibility.
  4.  To write compelling alt text for images, one must describe the image's content concisely and meaningfully, focusing on conveying the image's purpose and context without unnecessary details. 
  5.  ARIA roles provide extra information about HTML elements and enhance web accessibility. They assist assistive technologies in understanding the purpose and behavior of interactive web page elements.
  6.  Ensuring keyboard accessibility in web development projects involves designing keyboard-only navigation, where all interactive elements like buttons and links are accessible via keyboard input.
  7. Best practices for mobile accessibility involve considering the constraints of smaller screens and touch-based interactions, optimizing touch targets for easy tapping, and ensuring functionalities are accessible without relying solely on gestures. Testing on various devices and screen sizes is essential to ensure a smooth user experience.

Acknowledgment

This piece was written by Michel Ventura and Enrique Urzua 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.


Resources:

Henry, Shawn Lawton; Abou-Zahra, Shadi; Brewer, Judy (2014). The Role of Accessibility in a Universal Web

Intro to accessibility: https://www.w3.org/WAI/fundamentals/accessibility-intro/#context

"Supreme Court allows blind people to sue retailers if their websites are not accessible". Los Angeles Times. October 7, 2019.

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