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Inaccessible for basically everyone

Illustration by Dougal MacPherson

My Accessibility Journey: What I’ve Learned So Far

Last year I gave a talk about CSS and accessibility at the stahlstadt.js meetup in Linz, Austria. Afterward, an attendee asked why I was interested in accessibility: Did I or someone in my life have a disability?

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I’m used to answering this question—to which the answer is no—because I get it all the time. A lot of people seem to assume that a personal connection is the only reason someone would care about accessibility.

This is a problem. For the web to be truly accessible, everyone who makes websites needs to care about accessibility. We tend to use our own abilities as a baseline when we’re designing and building websites. Instead, we need to keep in mind our diverse users and their diverse abilities to make sure we’re creating inclusive products that aren’t just designed for a specific range of people.

Another reason we all should think about accessibility is that it makes us better at our jobs. In 2016 I took part in 10k Apart, a competition held by Microsoft and An Event Apart. The objective was to build a compelling web experience that worked without JavaScript and could be delivered in 10 kB. On top of that, the site had to be accessible. At the time, I knew about some accessibility basics like using semantic HTML, providing descriptions for images, and hiding content visually. But there was still a lot to learn.

As I dug deeper, I realized that there was far more to accessibility than I had ever imagined, and that making accessible sites basically means doing a great job as a developer (or as a designer, project manager, or writer).

Accessibility is exciting

Web accessibility is not about a certain technology. It’s not about writing the most sophisticated code or finding the most clever solution to a problem; it’s about users and whether they’re able to use our products.

The focus on users is the main reason why I’m specializing in accessibility rather than solely in animation, performance, JavaScript frameworks, or WebVR. Focusing on users means I have to keep up with pretty much every web discipline, because users will load a page, deal with markup in some way, use a design, read text, control a JavaScript component, see animation, walk through a process, and navigate. What all those things have in common is that they’re performed by someone in front of a device. What makes them exciting is that we don’t know which device it will be, or which operating system or browser. We also don’t know how our app or site will be used, who will use it, how fast their internet connection will be, or how powerful their device will be.

Making accessible sites forces you to engage with all of these variables—and pushes you, in the process, to do a great job as a developer. For me, making accessible sites means making fast, resilient sites with great UX that are fun and easy to use even in conditions that aren’t ideal.

I know, that sounds daunting. The good news, though, is that I’ve spent the last year focusing on some of those things, and I’ve learned several important lessons that I’m happy to share.

1. Accessibility is a broad concept

Many people, like me pre-2016, think making your site accessible is synonymous with making it accessible to people who use screen readers. That’s certainly hugely important, but it’s only one part of the puzzle. Accessibility means access for everyone:

  • If your site takes ten seconds to load on a mobile connection, it’s not accessible.
  • If your site is only optimized for one browser, it’s not accessible.
  • If the content on your site is difficult to understand, your site isn’t accessible.

It doesn’t matter who’s using your website or when, where, and how they’re doing it. What matters is that they’re able to do it.

The belief that you have to learn new software or maybe even hardware to get started with accessibility is a barrier for many developers. At some point you will have to learn how to use a screen reader if you really want to get everything right, but there’s a lot more to do before that. We can make a lot of improvements that help everyone, including people with visual impairments, by simply following best practices.

2. There are permanent, temporary, and situational impairments

Who benefits from a keyboard-accessible site? Only a small percentage of users, some might argue. Aaron Gustafson pointed me to the Microsoft design toolkit, which helped me broaden my perspective. People with permanent impairments are not the only ones who benefit from accessibility. There are also people with temporary and situational impairments who’d be happy to have an alternative way of navigating. For example, someone with a broken arm, someone who recently got their forearm tattooed, or a parent who’s holding their kid in one arm while having to check something online. When you watch a developer operate their editor, it sometimes feels like they don’t even know they have a mouse. Why not give users the opportunity to use your website in a similar way?

As you think about the range of people who could benefit from accessibility improvements, the group of beneficiaries tends to grow much bigger. As Derek Featherstone has said, “When something works for everyone, it works better for everyone.

3. The first step is to make accessibility a requirement

I’ve been asked many times whether it’s worth the effort to fix accessibility, how much it costs, and how to convince bosses and colleagues. My answer to those questions is that you can improve things significantly without even having to use new tools, spend extra money, or ask anyone’s permission.

The first step is to make accessibility a requirement—if not on paper, then at least in your head. For example, if you’re looking for a slider component, pick one that’s accessible. If you’re working on a design, make sure color contrasts are high enough. If you’re writing copy, use language that is easy to understand.

We ask ourselves many questions when we make design and development decisions: Is the code clean? Does the site look nice? Is the UX great? Is it fast enough? Is it well-documented?

As a first step, add one more question to your list: Is it accessible?

4. Making accessible sites is a team sport

Another reason why making websites accessible sounds scary to some developers is that there is a belief that we’re the only ones responsible for getting it right.

In fact, as Dennis Lembree reminds us, “Nearly everyone in the organization is responsible for accessibility at some level.

It’s a developer’s job to create an accessible site from a coding perspective, but there are many things that have to be taken care of both before and after that. Designs must be intuitive, interactions clear and helpful, copy understandable and readable. Relevant personas and use cases have to be defined, and tests must be carried out accordingly. Most importantly, leadership and teams have to see accessibility as a core principle and requirement, which brings me to the next point: communication.

5. Communication is key

After talking to a variety of people at meetups and conferences, I think one of the reasons accessibility often doesn’t get the place it deserves is that not everyone knows what it means. Many times you don’t even have to convince your team, but rather just explain what accessibility is. If you want to get people on board, it matters how you approach them.

The first step here is to listen. Talk to your colleagues and ask why they make certain design, development, or management decisions. Try to find out if they don’t approach things in an accessible way because they don’t want to, they’re not allowed to, or they just never thought of it. You’ll have better results if they don’t feel bad, so don’t try to guilt anyone into anything. Just listen. As soon as you know why they do things the way they do, you’ll know how to address your concerns.

Highlight the benefits beyond accessibility

You can talk about accessibility without mentioning it. For example, talk about typography and ideal character counts per line and how beautiful text is with the perfect combination of font size and line height. Demonstrate how better performance impacts conversion rates and how focusing on accessibility can promote out-of-the-box thinking that improves usability in general.

Challenge your colleagues

Some people like challenges. At a meetup, a designer who specializes in accessibility once said that one of the main reasons she loves designing with constraints in mind is that it demands a lot more of her than going the easy way. Ask your colleagues, Can we hit a speed index below 1000? Do you think you can design that component in such a way that it’s keyboard-accessible? My Nokia 3310 has a browser—wouldn’t it be cool if we could make our next website work on that thing as well?

Help people empathize

In his talk “Every Day Website Accessibility,” Scott O’Hara points out that it can be hard for someone to empathize if they are unaware of what they should be empathizing with. Sometimes people just don’t know that certain implementations might be problematic for others. You can help them by explaining how people who are blind or who can’t use a mouse, use the web. Even better, show videos of how people navigate the web without a mouse. Empathy prompts are also a great of way of illustrating different circumstances under which people are surfing the web.

6. Talk about accessibility before a projects kicks off

It’s of course a good thing if you’re fixing accessibility issues on a site that’s already in production, but that has its limitations. At some point, changes may be so complicated and costly that someone will argue that it’s not worth the effort. If your whole team cares about accessibility from the very beginning, before a box is drawn or a line of code is written, it’s much easier, effective, and cost-efficient to make an accessible product.

7. A solid knowledge of HTML solves a lot of problems

It’s impressive to see how JavaScript and the way we use it has changed in recent years. It has become incredibly powerful and more important than ever for web development. At the same time, it seems HTML has become less important. There is an ongoing discussion about CSS in JavaScript and whether it’s more efficient and cleaner than normal CSS from a development perspective. What we should talk about instead is the excessive use of <div> and <span> elements at the expense of other elements. It makes a huge difference whether we use a link or a <div> with an onclick handler. There’s also a difference between links and buttons when it comes to accessibility. Form items need <label> elements, and a sound document outline is essential. Those are just a few examples of absolute basics that some of us forgot or never learned. Semantic HTML is one of the cornerstones of accessible web development. Even if we write everything in JavaScript, HTML is what is finally rendered in the user’s browser.

(Re)learning HTML and using it consciously prevents and fixes many accessibility issues.

8. JavaScript is not the enemy, and sometimes JavaScript even improves accessibility

I’m one of those people who believes that most websites should be accessible even when JavaScript fails to execute. That doesn’t mean that I hate JavaScript; of course not—it pays part of my rent. JavaScript is not the enemy, but it’s important that we use it carefully because it’s very easy to change the user experience for the worse otherwise.

Not that long ago, I didn’t know that JavaScript could improve accessibility. We can leverage its power to make our websites more accessible for keyboard users. We can do things like trapping focus in a modal window, adding key controls to custom components, or showing and hiding content in an accessible manner.

There are many impressive and creative CSS-only implementations of common widgets, but they’re often less accessible and provide worse UX than their JavaScript equivalents. In a post about building a fully accessible help tooltip, Sara Soueidan explains why JavaScript is important for accessibility. “Every single no-JS solution came with a very bad downside that negatively affected the user experience,” she writes.

9. It’s a good time to know vanilla CSS and JavaScript

For a long time, we’ve been reliant on libraries, frameworks, grid systems, and polyfills because we demanded more of browsers than they were able to give us. Naturally, we got used to many of those tools, but from time to time we should take a step back and question if we really still need them. There were many problems that Bootstrap and jQuery solved for us, but do those problems still exist, or is it just easier for us to write $() instead of document.querySelector()?

jQuery is still relevant, but browser inconsistencies aren’t as bad as they used to be. CSS Grid Layout is supported in all major desktop browsers, and thanks to progressive enhancement we can still provide experiences for legacy browsers. We can do feature detection natively with feature queries, testing has gotten much easier, and caniuse and MDN help us understand what browsers are capable of. Many people use frameworks and libraries without knowing what problems those tools are solving. To decide whether it makes sense to add the extra weight to your site, you need a solid understanding of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Instead of increasing the page weight for older browsers, it’s often better to progressively enhance an experience. Progressively enhancing our websites—and reducing the number of requests, kilobytes, and dependencies—makes them faster and more robust, and thus more accessible.

10. Keep learning about accessibility and share your knowledge

I’m really thankful that I’ve learned all this in the past few months. Previously, I was a very passive part of the web community for a very long time. Ever since I started to participate online, attend and organize events, and write about web-related topics, especially accessibility, things have changed significantly for me and I’ve grown both personally and professionally.

Understanding the importance of access and inclusion, viewing things from different perspectives, and challenging my decisions has helped me become a better developer.

Knowing how things should be done is great, but it’s just the first step. Truly caring, implementing, and most importantly sharing your knowledge is what makes an impact.

Share your knowledge

Don’t be afraid to share what you’ve learned. Write articles, talk at meetups, and give in-house workshops. The distinct culture of sharing knowledge is one of the most important and beautiful things about our industry.

Go to conferences and meetups

Attending conferences and meetups is very valuable because you get to meet many different people from whom you can learn. There are several dedicated accessibility events and many conferences that feature at least one accessibility talk.

Organize meetups

Dennis Deacon describes his decision to start and run an accessibility meetup as a life-changing experience. Meetups are very important and valuable for the community, but organizing a meetup doesn’t just bring value to attendees and speakers. As an organizer, you get to meet all these people and learn from them. By listening and by understanding how they see and approach things, and what’s important to them, you are able to broaden your horizons. You grow as a person, but you also get to meet other professionals, agencies, and companies from which you may also benefit professionally.

Invite experts to your meetup or conference

If you’re a meetup or conference organizer, you can have a massive impact on the role accessibility plays in our community. Invite accessibility experts to your event and give the topic a forum for discussion.

Follow accessibility experts on Twitter

Follow experts on Twitter to learn what they’re working on, what bothers them, and what they think about recent developments in inclusive web development and design in general. I’ve learned a lot from the following people: Aaron Gustafson, Adrian Roselli, Carie Fisher, Deborah Edwards-Onoro, Heydon Pickering, Hugo Giraudel, Jo Spelbrink, Karl Groves, Léonie Watson, Marco Zehe, Marcy Sutton, Rob Dodson, Scott O’Hara, Scott Vinkle, and Steve Faulkner.

11. Simply get started

You don’t have to go all-in from the very beginning. If you improve just one thing, you’re already doing a great job in bringing us closer to a better web. Just get started and keep working.

There are a lot of resources out there, and trying to find out how and where to start can get quite overwhelming. I’ve gathered a few sites and books that helped me; hopefully they will help you as well. The following lists are by no means exhaustive.

Video series

  • This free Udacity course is a great way to get started.
  • Rob Dodson covers many different accessibility topics in his video series A11ycasts (a11y is short for accessibility—the number eleven stands for the number of letters omitted).

Books

Blogs

Newsletters

Accessible JavaScript components

Resources and further reading

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