Accessibility is, in my opinion, one of the most important and impactful things you can contribute to as an IT professional. Contrary to the common misconception, accessibility is not some nonsense that only helps a small number of people – it helps all of us. After all, each of us will inevitably experience various disabilities in our lives from time to time, whether permanent or temporary.
For example, glare from sunlight can get so strong that without proper contrast, it can be next to impossible to read the content of a website. Over time, your eyesight can also deteriorate, so a small font and poor contrast can cause problems. By developing services and products with accessibility in mind, we maximise the chances that everyone will be able to use them.
Accessibility is also a great advantage for business: Why exclude some users when you can offer your service to everyone? It is estimated that 15% of people have one or more disabilities, and among the elderly population, the share is close to 50%. This is a huge portion of the world's population, and a number of people you simply cannot exclude. And in case being the right thing to do isn’t enough to convince someone, it’s worth noting that accessible websites are also favored by search engine algorithms, leading to higher rankings in search results, as well as increased brand visibility, conversion rates and site traffic.
The use of digital services exploded when Covid-19 hit the world. For a large number of people, the pandemic finally made it possible to work, study, buy groceries and get medical care remotely, for example. At the same time, numerous cautionary examples demonstrated why accessibility is so important. Many accessibility problems emerged in communication platforms, information systems and digital healthcare services used by millions of people daily, to name just a few examples.
It is clear that we still have a long way to go to enable everyone to use digital services and be part of society in an equitable manner. Remote life and digital services are here to stay, so we need to keep investing in accessibility.
What is the responsibility of the developers of digital services?
As part of my job, I solve various accessibility challenges and have had the opportunity to work with visually impaired people. A couple of years ago, I interviewed a visually impaired person who described perfectly whether or not digital services were making the world a more equal place.
This person had started their own business in the 1980s and in the early years, there was no technology to support them in invoicing or making receipts – they had to rely on customers to do it instead. It was only later on, as technology developed, that they were able to do invoicing and other tasks themselves. The part they stressed as the most important was being able to do more things themselves.
When I asked them about the development of digital services, the answer was clear: technology and digital services have evolved enormously and most services are so complex that they are difficult to use for visually impaired people. As a result we are, to a certain extent, taking a step backwards. In order for us to start moving forward again, we need to take care of accessibility in digital services.
The biggest takeaway I learned from this experience is that it is very important for people without disabilities to understand and learn about living with different disabilities. Every single person working in IT and developing digital services can directly strengthen or weaken equity through their actions. We can decide whether or not we enable people to use digital services regardless of their background and possible disabilities.
How to make accessibility a stronger part of the development of digital services
What is important to note about accessibility is that it brings a new point of view into things you are already doing. If you're a developer, you need to pay attention to things that you may not have known about before – some of them may already be familiar to you, but you may just not have known that they could be improved with accessibility. If you're a designer, you might consider accessibility for example by choosing different colors and fonts than the ones you would have used otherwise.
If you're not familiar with developing an accessible digital service, don't worry – we’re all beginners at one point! I haven't always been familiar with it either, but I've learned a lot over the years. The amount of information available on the topic is so vast that it can feel difficult to get started. There's no need to be anxious about learning about accessibility. Every single project can be a start for your learning journey, and there are plenty of examples and tutorials to help you along the way – check out the list at the end of this blog post for some tips.
I strongly recommend that you first learn about what accessibility means in general and then choose a few things that you could pay more attention to in your own work. For example, fixing the most commonly detected accessibility issues is one way to start developing accessibility. You will learn more along the way!
In conclusion, the most important aspect of accessibility is its social impact. I believe every IT professional should take responsibility for the world they create through their work. Services that are not accessible prevent people from using them and, by extension, from participating in society. Failure to take accessibility into account is discrimination which can in some cases even be in breach of the law.
Developing the accessibility of digital services is developing equity. Your everyday choices determine whether people get to keep up with progress or fall off the bandwagon.
Now, what kind of choices do you want to make?
List of useful sources
- The most commonly detected accessibility issues, as listed by WebAIM
- The Web Accessibility Evaluation Guide, a comprehensive resource by WebAIM
- An overview and tutorials about designing and developing accessibility by W3C. It is a complete material for accessibility with useful tips on getting started and what kind of things to focus on.
- A great talk about invisible patterns in design and how they affect accessibility, by Manuel Matuzović.
- Resources about how people with disabilities use the web by W3C. You will also find information about how to take older users into account.