What Does It Mean To Develop Accessible Websites?

If I ask what it means to develop accessible websites, what would you say? Would you respond that accessibility means adding code for screen readers? Is there anything more? Does accessibility start and end with screen readers?


Last week I started a series about accessibility and shared how I’m not doing a great job and why that might be. I also shamed myself a little by calling attention to my failings with this site in the hopes it will lead me to make the site more accessible to more people.

I also hope you felt a little empathic shame yourself and want to join me on this journey to create more accessible websites.

What is Accessibility?

I do think the common thought is that accessibility means developing websites for screen readers. There’s more, of course, but I get the sense that most people equate website accessibility with screen readers.

The way I think of accessibility is to place it on a scale. At any point in time a site is accessible to some and not to others. Anything I can do to help one more person access the site makes it more accessible.

That could mean anything from adding ARIA roles for screen readers to supporting an older version of a browser. It could mean providing keyboard shortcuts for people who have difficulty using a mouse and it could mean a responsive design that works across more devices, and so much more.

I was curious to see how accessible is defined and I collected some definitions from the dictionary app on my Mac, which combines results from a couple of different Oxford dictionaries.

able to be reached or entered
able to be easily retained or used
easily understood
able to be reached or entered by people with disabilities

It’s interesting that the word disability doesn’t show up until the fourth definition. Accessibility is for everyone.

As I was working on this series, Melanie Jones posted some poll results on the Simply Accessible website. The poll was a fill in the blank. Accessibility is…

My favorite response to the poll was “To care for every user.” I think that’s what accessibility ultimately means. Care about every user (or practically speaking, as many as possible) and do everything you can to make sure your site works for each of them.

The first place we should start is to increase our awareness. For example here’s something I found on a site about disability awareness.

Put aside the presumption that disability resides in only some individuals. All of us do or will experience some change in ability, whether permanent or temporary.

We all have disabilities. When we make our sites more accessible, we’re helping a lot more people than we realize.

I can see, but I don’t see as well as I did 20 years ago. If type on a site is set too small, then it’s not accessible to me. Years ago I developed some kind of repetitive stress injury using a mouse at work. I no longer use a mouse. I use a keyboard to navigate as much as possible and fall back on a trackpad when I can’t.

We all have disabilities, even if we don’t have the exact disabilities with think accessibility is supposed to be about.

Five Types of Disabilities

While I think the all inclusive definition of accessibility is the right definition, when we talk accessibility with websites, we’re mostly looking through documents about developing sites specifically for several types of disabilities.

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) suggests there are five common types of disabilities that affect how people can consume and interact with websites. In alphabetical order they are:

  • Auditory
  • Cognitive and neurological
  • Physical or Motor
  • Speech
  • Visual

Keep in mind that people might experience one or more of the above to various degrees. I can see, just not as well as I used to. Also keep in mind that someone might have a visual disability from birth, due to aging, or even due to some temporary circumstance. The degree of disability can and will change over time for many people.

Auditory disabilities can range from being hard in hearing in one ear to being Deaf. Accessibility considerations include providing transcripts and captions to all audio content. They include providing options to pause and play and increase volume and might even include accompanying audio content with sign language.

Cognitive and neurological disabilities involve disorders of any part of the nervous system. They can affect how people see, hear, speak, move, and how people learn and understand information. Accessibility considerations could be to write simple sentences as opposed to complex ones and to allow flashing and blinking elements to be turned off (or better not including them to begin with).

Physical (Motor) disabilities include any limitations of muscular control, from arthritis to paralysis. Considerations include adding keyboard support and alternative means of interaction in general.

Speech disabilities include any difficulty producing speech that is recognizable and understandable by others or by speech recognition software. Considerations include more ways to contact you than a phone number.

Visual disabilities include things from a lack of sensitivity to certain color hues to complete blindness. Considerations include text alternatives to imagery, controls, and structural elements.

Again these disabilities aren’t binary. They aren’t on or off for all people. Many people experience various levels of any or all of these types and they aren’t always permanent. Sometimes our environment can play a role in our ability to access a website. Low bandwidth, bright light, lots of ambient noise, or using an old browser can make using a website challenging for anyone.

Do You Need an Accessibility Budget?

Similar to having a performance budget to improve site performance you might have an accessibility budget to improve site accessibility.

The word budget may not be the right one since a lot of this won’t require any additional expense in money or time. In some ways accessibility is just another constraint to add to design.

For example it takes just as long to choose a color scheme with enough contrast as it does to choose one lacking contrast. The difference is the awareness and the knowledge that hue alone isn’t enough to distinguish one element from another.

Where you might have previously looked at a blue and a red and decided if they looked good together, now you’ll consider their value and make sure there’s enough contrast in light and dark as well.

Not everything will be as simple. You’ll likely need more time to learn to use ARIA attributes and make them part of your routine. The work is akin to incorporating responsive design. At first it’s confusing and difficult because so much is new and unfamiliar. With each project a little more becomes familiar until it’s no longer confusing or difficult at all.

If you make use of frameworks or pattern and component libraries then you’ll add extra code for accessibility once and reuse your library or framework as you always have. Here and there you should improve on that extra code, but we aren’t talking about significantly more work than what you do now.

I realize there are more costs involved in both time and money than I’m implying, but a lot of what we need to do doesn’t have to cost much of anything beyond some time to learn what to do.

If you’ve been developing websites for any length of time think back. You used to spend more time developing fewer things than you do now. The technology has improved, your skills have improved, and your processes have improved. What once might have taken an hour to code, probably takes a few minutes now.

My point is we generally won’t need to spend a lot of money or time to make accessible websites. For most projects it’ll come down to an awareness of what to do and forming some better habits so you actually do those things.

There’s still a lot of learning involved. Take it one step at a time. Set some priorities for what to learn first and then learn one thing at a time. Add the thing you learned to your routine and move on to the next priority on the list.

As we’ll see over the next couple of weeks, there are various levels of accessibility compliance. So from a budget point of view, it makes sense to start with the minimum compliance and work your way up from there.

Closing Thoughts

Making a website more accessible means making it easier for more people (or machines) to consume and interact with the site. You want to help everyone find and consume content and complete whatever tasks your site has for them to complete.

Accessibility is far more than coding for screen readers, though developing for screen readers is certainly an important aspect of website accessibility.

Much of the documentation regarding accessibility does concern itself with five different types of disabilities. In alphabetical order they are auditory, cognitive and neurological, physical or motor, speech, and visual, and they can range from having a hard time reading small text to paralysis and many things in between.

I don’t think accessibility has to cost a lot of money. A significant amount of the work will require some learning, but once learned it’s more good habits than additional work. That’s not to imply there’s no cost, though you should recover any costs as your effort will help more people buy from you.

Next week I’ll talk about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). I think they offer a good high level view of the subject and offer good starting place for us to learn more and get into the specifics for how to build accessible sites.

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