Making the digital world more accessible means building it from the code up
Dec 8, 2021

Making the digital world more accessible means building it from the code up

For experts in the digital space, improving accessibility means building sites accessibly — ideally, from the very start.

There are lots of ways to make websites and apps more accessible for people with disabilities. Yet, when many people go online, features like sign-ups, check out forms and interactives simply don’t work with assistive technology.

One person who’s been studying this for years is Joe Devon. He’s the co-founder of Diamond, a digital design company that builds accessible websites.

For the last few years, Diamond has reviewed the top 100 websites according to Alexa to check how accessible they are. This year, it also reviewed the top apps on the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Joe says accessibility starts with the basics. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Joe Devon: If you’re a designer and you make an app, like let’s say Slack or Skype, where you have an online-offline indicator, the original way that a lot of folks would do that is they would create a red or a green button that would indicate online or offline. So if you pay attention to accessibility, you will know that a colorblind user sees that red and green as gray, in both cases, and they won’t know the difference. And if you build it accessibly, all you have to do is add text, and not use color alone to convey information. So you would say, “online” next to the green, “offline” next to the red, and now you’re accessible. So there are lots and lots of examples of that nature, that make it accessible. And it’s really just usability, but for more people.

Joe Diamond stands in front of a window and plant wearing a blazer and collared shirt while crossing his arms,
Joe Devon. (Courtesy photo)

Kimberly Adams: Your company released a state of accessibility report evaluating how accessible certain websites and mobile apps were. What did you find, overall?

Devon: First of all that, for once, we can take a look and say, “Wow, there has been a significant improvement.” The pandemic really proved the importance of accessibility and the companies, certainly at the top, have responded and responded quite well. The downside is that we found that free apps did quite a bit better than paid apps. And what that really shows you is as soon as you get out of the top, the largest companies with the largest audiences, there’s a significant drop-off in terms of the accessibility.

Adams: Can you give some examples of how color and alt-text are or aren’t showing up on some of the most popular websites online?

Devon: Color contrast would be if you take, let’s say, gray on white, the contrast isn’t high. And when you’re in your twenties, and you have perfect vision, for you, you might not even notice it. Or if the font is very small, you might be totally fine with it. And then alt text is if you have an image and you’re blind, you need to have alt text that describes the image. So 24% of websites did not have or had issues with their alt text.

Adams: How challenging is it to fix these types of issues, when a site wasn’t built accessibly from the beginning?

Devon: It can be very challenging, depending on the issue. So if you take something like orientation, imagine that it’s a four-year-old app that has all of this code behind it, maybe millions of lines of code. And you’ve only created, let’s say, a vertical video [function]. And now all of a sudden you need to do horizontal video, it can impact lots and lots of code, tens of thousands of lines, if not more. So if you built that in when you were first creating the app, it’s going to be far easier than trying to add it in afterward. Certain things definitely would require a lot of work. The color contrast is one example where if your logo and your entire company’s color palette is inaccessible, there could be a tremendous amount of work to change that —

Adams: And cost.

Devon: Yeah, absolutely. But if your base is okay, and then you just have certain places where you need to change it, it might not be as bad.

Related Links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

Joe says while companies bear most of this responsibility, the rest of us can make our personal content accessible with simple steps like adding alt text when posting photos or other images on social media.

The full State of Accessibility Report from Diamond lays out the exact methodology used to test the websites and apps, including checking whether someone could tab through a form to sign up for something, rather than use a mouse. Or if the page had meaningful alt text for images.

Joe also mentioned the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Those come from the World Wide Web Consortium, and set some digital standards for both websites and apps when it comes to accessibility.

Businesses can be sued if their websites aren’t accessible, which is happening more and more in the U.S.

Fast Company has a piece laying out eight steps companies can take to improve their sites and apps, including regular testing for accessibility, and offering multiple methods of user feedback.

And the consequences for an inaccessible website can be severe — sometimes putting people’s health at risk. Last week, the Department of Justice reached a settlement agreement with the grocery chain Hy-vee, requiring it to make its COVID-19 vaccination portal more accessible. According to DOJ, some people using screen readers, or trying to use the tab key instead of a mouse, were unable to book appointments on the site.

This is the department’s second settlement like this. Rite Aid reached a similar settlement last month because its website also made it difficult, if not impossible, for people using assistive technology to sign up for vaccines.

Under the settlements, both companies have to update their sites to meet those Web Content Accessibility Guidelines I mentioned earlier, plus regularly test for any problems and fix them right away.

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