Product Design
October 18, 2021

Digital Accessibility 101: The importance of Digital Accessibility

This is the first installment of a series of articles where we are going to dive into digital accessibility. Some of the topics that are going to be covered are:

  • Why is this subject so important?
  • Why should you make your sites/applications accessible?
  • How can you make your site/app accessible?

In this article, we are going to tackle the first two questions.

Why is Digital Accessibility so Important?

It is estimated that over 1.2 billion people live with some form of disability. This makes up approximately 15% of the population. As you can imagine, just as with the real world, people with disabilities encounter barriers to navigate the digital space on a daily basis.

When done right, the digital medium can be a great tool for people with disabilities as it can enable them to do things that they couldn't do before or make a task more effortless. Some examples of this are:

  • A blind person reading the news with their computer using a screen reader whereas before there were only newspapers.
  • A physically disabled person opting for online shopping vs going to the store in person.
  • A hard-of-hearing person opting for the online version of a class they are attending at a university because it's close-captioned.
  • A speech-impaired person filling in a contact form or ordering food with an app because calling is not an option or they would have needed to ask someone else to do it for them.

There are many more examples just like those. That being said, the one thing they all rely on to actually work is that they need to be accessible. We can easily transform the examples above so they are not useful anymore:

  • The news site is not coded properly, it does not have the correct text hierarchy. Without going into too much detail, the site becomes just a big blob of text to the tools a blind person would use to navigate the site making it unusable. The blind person would need to find another place to get the news from.
  • The e-commerce site is not keyboard accessible so many of the physically disabled people that don't use a mouse to navigate the web wouldn't be able to shop online in that store. They would need to find another site or go to the store in person.
  • The university uploads the class but doesn't add any closed captions or transcripts making it useless for the hard of hearing.
  • The restaurant has a web page showcasing their menu but the only way to order is by calling the phone number on their site, speech impaired people would probably order someplace else that is accessible.

With the digital medium becoming more and more popular, the lack of digital accessibility can become even prohibitive and exclusionary. Think how many things you do on a normal day that involves interacting with a website or an app?

How would you feel if those sites and apps weren't built in a way that you could use them? You would feel left out and you would probably find it harder to get things done.

The Curb Cut Effect

The curb cut effect is the phenomenon that occurs when disability-friendly features end up benefiting a larger group of people than the people it was originally designed for.

The name comes from the curb cut ramps installed for people in wheelchairs, those ended up being really useful to other people. For example, parents pushing strollers, workers pushing heavy carts, business travelers wheeling luggage, even runners and skateboarders.

The same can be identified in many places in the digital space. One very clear example that probably most people have used is the addition of closed captions, now included in all streaming services and video platforms.

Closed captions have allowed hard-of-hearing people to watch and understand content in a way they couldn't before. They also allow everyone to watch content in a foreign language or watch a video without audio if needed too, especially in situations like being at a library without headphones.

We all suffer some kind of disability, limitation or impairment

To further solidify the concept of "Accessibility benefits us all" let's talk broaden the scope and talk about disabilities, limitations and impairments:

  • Permanent: These are the ones we normally think about when we think of disabilities (Visual, Auditory, Cognitive, Physical, and Speech).
  • Temporary: Ear infection that prevents you from hearing properly for a while or you broke your arm and now can't use a mouse to use your computer for a couple of weeks.
  • Situational: You are on a bus and want to watch a video but you forgot your headphones so you need close captions. Even something as simple as looking at your phone outside if it's very bright, not enough contrast ratio on an app you might be using might make it unusable in that situation.
  • Socioeconomic: Using a very old device with a poor internet connection in a site that has not been optimized for those conditions can result in a very poor experience for the user.

As you can see the lack of accessibility affects us all to some degree.

Why Should You Make Your Site/Application Accessible?

The simplest answer to the question above is that "It's the right thing to do". That alone should be enough to convince you. It should be a no-brainer that making your products usable by anyone and not excluding more than a billion people is the way to go.

What you might not know is that by doing the right thing, you will also be benefiting your company in a lot of ways. Some of them are:

  • Reach a wider audience, hence more customers and more revenue.
  • Better SEO (Search Engine Optimization), which means that people will find you more easily when using search engines like Google.
  • Better user experience for all users can help with user retention.
  • Avoid potential discrimination lawsuits, if you want to know more here is a good article about digital discrimination lawsuits in the US.

What Comes Next?

Now that we have talked about why accessibility is so important and why you should make your site/application accessible, it's time to start the journey of making your site/application accessible.

To help you in that journey, we'll be posting more articles in the upcoming weeks that will touch on key things you need to do and take into consideration.