May 19, 2022

What is accessibility and why does It matter?

Building a digital product requires you to balance many concerns. One often overlooked but vital concern is accessibility.


David Steffen

What Is Accessibility?

Accessibility is the practice of making your service or product usable by as many people as possible. Conversations about accessibility tend to revolve around access for disabled people, but some accessibility concerns are not disability-related, such as meal options that accommodate religious dietary restrictions, date formats that are unambiguous for an international audience, or software that can function with slow internet access.

An IRL Example: Wheelchair Accessibility

An example of accessibility you see at many physical businesses is wheelchair accessibility.  Modern building codes require a minimum width to doorways, a sloped or elevator access to reach all important spaces, and other factors. Someone who uses a wheelchair should be able to enter a business place and do what they came for just like anyone else. If they can’t, then this is a problem that needs to be resolved.

Most modern hotels are accessible, but wheelchair users still frequently report accessibility issues with events held at hotels. If a wheelchair user is invited to be a convention speaker but arrives to find they are meant to speak from a ramp-less raised platform, that is an accessibility problem. Accessibility isn’t something you can do once and then forget about it; it needs to be something that should always be a factor starting at the planning stages.

Software Needs to Be Accessible

Accessibility is not limited to wheelchair accessibility and is not even limited to physical business places. Software needs to be accessible, too. Like wheelchair accessibility, it is much easier and cheaper to account for by starting in early planning, instead of postponing accessibility work until a later date where it might take larger restructuring efforts to fix the problems. Imagine trying to add wheelchair accessibility to a convention after the convention has started, with hallways full of guests.

Accessibility is overlooked far too often. Software curricula may include little to no discussion of accessibility concerns, and software companies overlook it as well. Even when the topic is raised during the design process it may be assigned a low priority and not seen as an immediate concern because users aren’t reporting it (perhaps the users who need it simply went elsewhere already).

Accessibility is important, and deserves to be considered early and often, instead of putting it on the back burner.

Why Does Accessibility Matter?

It’s the Right Thing To Do

Just as wheelchair users deserve to be able to do business at a bank, a blind person or a colorblind person or a person with motor control impairments deserve to benefit from your products or services the same as anyone else. 

Maximizing Your Customer Base

Making it possible for anyone to use your products or services means that you have a larger potential customer base, which increases your opportunities for growth. If your site is more accessible than other businesses in your market space, this can give you a competitive advantage not only for customers who have those accessibility needs, but for others who prefer to spend their money with companies who care about accessibility.

Maximizing Your Potential Partners

Some business partnerships may not be available if your software does not pass certain accessibility audits, due to laws or business policies. If you put off accessibility design until you think you need it, when that time comes it may already be too late–the potential partner may not be able to wait for you to find and resolve your accessibility problems at that point.

Everyone Can Benefit

Even people who don’t strictly “need” an accessibility aid can still benefit from one. Video games that have a subtitles feature will benefit deaf people, but they may also benefit parents of babies who are afraid they will wake the child. High contrast displays may help anyone use your software outside on a sunny day.

We All Might Need It Someday

Do you think that accessibility aids are for other people? Maybe they are now, but any one of us might need an accessibility aid someday, perhaps due to illness, injury, or aging. By boosting accessibility you could be helping Future You.

Lawsuit Prevention

Companies can be sued for not making their products and services accessible. For example, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires certain reasonable accommodations to be made, and failing to do so may be grounds for a lawsuit. Digital-accessibility lawsuits have been possible for years, but in the first year of the pandemic such lawsuits increased significantly as businesses and customers shifted their focus to e-commerce. Domino’s Pizza lost a digital-accessibility case in 2018. CVS Pharmacy settled a case this year for their website.

Accessibility Design Questions To Ask Yourself

This is far from a comprehensive list, but here are a few examples of questions to be asking yourself as you work towards building more accessible digital products.

  • Can the software be navigated by a screen reader? A screen reader is a device that allows people who are blind or have other visual impairments to use a computer/phone/tablet.
  • Is there a high contrast mode? High contrast mode can help many users with vision problems, and some people just find it easier on the eyes even if they don’t have a specific reason for needing it.
  • Are color-coded graphics understandable for colorblind people? Designing with colors is fine for aesthetics or to provide usage hints, but the site should be usable without color differentiation.
  • Are there any flashing animations? Frequent flashing lights/images may trigger seizures in an epileptic user. These should be avoided if possible, and if included should have a clear warning.

What Do I Do?

If you are convinced that accessibility is a worthwhile concern, what do you do next? In the next few weeks, my coworkers will be sharing more articles about particular accessibility choices. 

In the meantime, read up on Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) which provides lists and practical examples. Consider accessibility early and often.

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David Steffen is a Senior Developer at Cloudburst, award-nominated founder, short fiction editor and publisher, cross-stitcher, and friend of dogs. He looks at everything from a perspective of storytelling and how it informs our understanding of the world.