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January 26, 2022

Accessibility in the Digital Age: Why It’s Necessary and What Digital Designers Should Do

Digital barriers are often invisible to designers, despite their existence to many groups of people. All organizations, government entities, and businesses must employ accessible design in their documents, videos, websites, and other online tools, to ensure that differently-abled users can access justice with the tools we build. This blog post will cover why accessibility is both legally and ethically necessary. Next, we'll outline conventions and terminology that should be used when building out websites or document automation tools. Lastly, we will discuss current universal standards of web accessibility, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and provide tips on who should use the guidelines and essential provisions.

Why is digital accessibility necessary?

  • It’s the right thing to do. In our digital age, ensuring that products and services are accessible for all people is simply part of being a good global citizen. Digital design with an accessibility framework creates inclusivity for members of society who may be marginalized.
  • It’s a human right. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signed by 161 countries, recognizes the obligation to “promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet.”
  • It’s the law. Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), among other federal statutes, prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. The law requires equal access to services provided by businesses, the government, and other organizations.
  • It benefits businesses. It's in an organization's best interests to ensure that all people can easily access and use its services. In the United States alone, over 60 million people have disabilities. Worldwide, over one billion people have some form of disability. Of course, people with disabilities are also users of digital products and services.

Language Conventions for Websites and Document Automation

Organizations should adopt the accepted vocabulary usage within the Disability community, but it is good to keep in mind that people have different ways of talking about disabilities.

Most communities advocate for “disability” rather than “differently-abled.” This is because the term "differently-abled" is not considered appropriate to many people with disabilities as it is considered "condescending, offensive or simply a way to avoid talking about disability." Some advocates concur that referring to individuals as "differently-abled" is problematic because we are all differently-abled. The term "person with a disability" is generally a more neutral and accepted term within the Disability community.

Additionally, some capitalize the “d” in Disability when referring to the community/politically mobilized group. Likewise, many capitalize the “d” in Deaf or Deaf-Blind because this is the culturally accepted preference for most Deaf and Deaf-Blind individuals. As much as possible, avoid outdated terminology and phrasing that is inaccurate or offensive. For instance, it is recognized that communities prefer the terminology of “person who is blind” rather than “blind person.” This phrasing is important because it acknowledges one’s personhood first. 

The above examples showcase how nuanced and evolving terminology and phrasing are. It is critical to honor the preference of a group because this shows not only “professional awareness and respect for any disability group but also a way to offer solidarity.” All of this is to say that it is imperative to encourage designers to start conversations with their users to ensure they use respectful, accurate language and speak to their experience.

Accessible Fonts, Color Schemes, and Readability  

Compliance with universal Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) increases the accessibility of your online presence.

WCAG outlines technical ways to improve the accessibility of “web content, websites and web applications on desktop computers, laptops, tablets and mobile devices for people with a wide range of disabilities, including auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech and visual disabilities.” The WCAG's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) develops WCAG and related resources with global participation. Additionally, WCAG users support an international community of accessibility experts striving to make an inclusive internet.

There are three levels of accessibility:

  1. WCAG Level A: This level represents the bare minimum of compliance.
  2. WCAG Level AA: This level is the target compliance level that legally covers where a group that works with the public needs to be according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  3. WCAG Level AAA: Any organization that has achieved this compliance level exceeds requirements. It is the highest level achievable, meaning it complies with the success criteria of all three levels.

For instance, WCAG rules outline appropriate contrast ratios or the perceived luminance or brightness between the colors of the text and the background. The acceptable ratios differ depending on what level of WCAG compliance you use. The proportions also divert depending on how the color is being used. The normal-sized text must have a higher contrast ratio than large text to make it easy to read. However, graphical components such as buttons have a different acceptable ratio. You can check the compliance of your text colors using a tool like the WebAIM Contrast Checker.

For instance, pure green text on a white background is not compliant with WCAG standards no matter whether you look at the AA or AAA level of compliance and no matter how large the text is.

However, pure red text on a white background does not pass the AA or AA level of compliance for standard size text, but it does give the AA level if the text is large.

However, we can see that black text on a white background is compliant at all levels and with all text sizes, unlike green and red. Black is almost always a safe bet to ensure readability on a white background.

Who should use WCAG guidelines?

The WCAG guidelines were intended for more intermediate to advanced use by web content developers, web authoring tool developers, and other related professionals. While not designed for beginners, it is beneficial for employees in companies and organizations to have a broad understanding of WCAG to inform their work and ensure accessibility to people with disabilities.

Helpful Videos: Best Practices for Online Accessibility

To learn more, watch these helpful videos.

  1. Making technology work for everyone 
  2. Designing for Accessibility: Overview

Takeaway 

The problem with digital barriers is that they exist even if one does not experience them. That is why we must encourage all digital tools designers for organizations, government entities, and businesses to have meaningful conversations with their users to create tools that speak to their unique experiences. Designers should also look to universal guidelines from WCAG for the latest digital accessibility standards. Finally, online designers must consider that designing for accessibility is a legal requirement and the right thing to do, both for business and at the most fundamental level, as a human.

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