The case for accessible web design

This is a guest post by Toby Osbourn. Toby is one of the most talented and productive web developers I know and I was privileged to work with and learn from him for 6 months. He tweets a lot of interesting, thought-provoking and funny stuff too.

One of the more common excuses I hear from people about why they don’t bother with accessibility when designing or building on the web is that “they don’t have any blind users”.

There are several things wrong with a statement such as this:

If not for the visually impaired, what does accessibility actually mean?

I think the opening two paragraphs from the w3’s introduction to web accessibility state it best:

Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web. Specifically, Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web. Web accessibility also benefits others, including older people with changing abilities due to aging.

Web accessibility encompasses all disabilities that affect access to the Web, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological disabilities.

There are a couple of key points in these two paragraphs I want to highlight:

What does this mean in practical terms

Being able to provide an experience that accomplishes everything mentioned so far requires effort in two key areas:

If your content is able to be understood by the majority of people and your code delivers that content in such a way that browsers and assistive devices can parse and display that content how the person wants or needs then you can call your project accessible.

Additional benefits to an accessible project

If your project is accessible then some unexpected benefits happen:

Accessible code is easier to update

Code that has been standardised for machines is also standardised for humans. As an example, if you have been using the ARIA roles correctly and consistently throughout your code it will be easy for another developer to take one look at a small sample of your code and know that the form they are looking at is actually a search form, or that collection of <div>’s is actually a modal dialog.

Accessible projects are optimised for SEO

When I mentioned that your code needed to be able to be deliver content in such a way that browsers and assistive devices can easily understand it what I didn’t mention was that search engine bots are an example of a machine that likes to be able to understand your content.

If you can make the search engine’s life easier by pointing out which bit of text is a video caption, or that a certain block of content is an aside to the main content rather than a first class citizen then it will thank you in kind by indexing correctly all the content it can.

Accessible websites encourage interaction

Not only will your website be able to be understood by more people, even people who could have understood your website before are going to feel at ease, with less cognitive burden placed on the person to use your site, next actions like leaving a comment and sharing on social media are going to feel more natural.

If people like interacting with your site they are going to.

Accessible web designers and developers get more work

The fact this article needs to be written is testament to how few developers and designers focus on accessibility, as such having accessibility chops is a huge addition to your CV.

Wrapping up

Hopefully you found this article useful, leave a comment with any questions or thoughts you have.