As far as website design and user experience is concerned, people with physical disabilities have historically been excluded from each phase of the process, including development and implementation.
It’s not uncommon for websites and digital platforms to be developed by non-disabled professionals who fail to consult people with physical disabilities on whether their design choices for websites or other digital platforms are acceptable.
Of course, other than high-profile examples, it’s unlikely that organizations are being malicious or actively avoiding making their sites accessible to people with disabilities. The reality is that many businesses are uninformed about web accessibility standards, while some don’t know where to begin to address the fact that their website is inaccessible to roughly one in four adults in the United States living with a disability.
On the bright side, there are an abundance of resources available to organizations serious about improving accessibility.
Too Often Businesses Design Only for Typical Users
Stacey Clarke, a former educator with multiple sclerosis (MS), believes many businesses don’t design for accessibility and digital inclusion because they don’t know better and fail to do the necessary research.
“I think that it's probably a lack of knowledge and understanding, and just not reaching out to individuals with physical disabilities or seeing what they could improve upon,” she tells InclusionHub.
She wonders if it’s also a habit of designing for a presumed standard that disregards those who are atypical.
“Because most businesses are going to look at the industry standard or ‘the norm,’ they're just going with the mean,” she says.
However, as more developers design for greater accessibility and to improve compliance, digital inclusion will become best practice. In fact, removing digital barriers for people with physical disabilities is becoming industry standard, as evidenced by tech giant Google establishing a department to ensure all products are accessible and inclusive.
Digital Challenges for People With Physical Disabilities
While some disabilities are more visible than others, most people with physical disabilities experience obstacles in digital environments uncommon to non-disabled people.
Certainly, tools are available, such as assistive technologies, but these can’t overcome every element of poor user design, nor should they be used independent of best design practices. Accessibility is about more than making websites more readable. For instance, sophisticated features that a designer may utilize to make a site more extravagant—such as flashing elements or striking colors—may actually be prohibitive and cause someone with a disability to click away.
While it may go against natural tendencies to push boundaries, simplicity is often the best way to ensure sites are compliant and generate interest from a broader group of people.
“I think online, especially, I get confused,” says Clarke, whose cognition is affected by MS. “If things aren't really easy, really accessible, or it's not another familiar format, then I'm out and done. I walk away, shut down, and turn off my computer
Complicated design elements can come in the form of too much text or complex layouts.
“I feel like there's so much information,” Clarke says. “And it's hard to disseminate and get the information you need, or to find the contacts that are actually useful to me.”
In addition to being frustrated by poor user design or complex navigation systems and inaccessible text, people with physical disabilities are rarely represented online or encouraged to be part of the process.
So what can organizations do to make their websites more accessible for people with physical disabilities?
Ensuring Web Content Is More Accessible & Inclusive
When making your website more inclusive, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a great place to begin. These protocols are designed specifically to make online content more usable for people with disabilities, and are informed by four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
While there are many design features a developer or content writer needs to consider, here are several helpful ones to get you started.
Provide alternative text for any non-text elements.
This facilitates non-text content to be changed, typically through assistive technologies, according to the needs of disabled users, such as braille, speech, large print, symbols, and simpler language.
If your website utilizes time-based media, give users non-timed alternatives.
For example, provide users a text version that conveys information equivalent to an automatically playing audio file. Allow users the opportunity to turn off time limits before they encounter them or to extend an allotted time period.
Ensure text content is readable and understandable.
Clear and simple writing benefits everybody, including highly educated people with specialized knowledge of a particular subject. Even if your intended audience is specialized, you may need to include supplemental content for somebody who’s reading ability is impaired by a disability.
Avoid designing content that could cause seizures.
o ensure this, your web pages shouldn’t contain elements that flash more than three times during any one second period.
Web pages should appear and operate in predictable ways.
For example, navigational elements displayed site-wide should always appear the same. Similar design elements should have consistent functionality across your website.
Assist users in correcting or avoiding errors.
If your website is responsible for legal commitments or financial transactions, make sure form submissions are reversible, can be corrected, and are reviewable before users finalize their submission.
All functionality on your website should be available from a keyboard.
Everything should be alternatively operable by interfacing with a keyboard. Notably, this shouldn’t preclude or discourage use of a mouse, or other methods additional to a keyboard.
Accessibility Resources for Web Designers & Content Developers
It can certainly be daunting to reorient your current website or design a new one around accessibility and inclusion principles if you haven’t done it before. Fortunately, there are several tools and resources available to measure compliance.
Make It Accessible is a way to test how well your website conforms to the four principles of web accessibility.
A11yresources includes a list of more than 200 hand-curated accessibility plugins, articles, tools, case studies, design patterns, assistive technologies, accessibility standards, and design resources.
Perkins Access partners with organizations to help them create digitally accessible products and services, including apps, websites, multimedia, and more.
PEAT helps build digital inclusion and accessibility in and around the workplace. Specifically, they’re focused at the intersection of new and emerging technologies and what they mean for workers with disabilities.
iAccessibility is a comprehensive resource for anything related to Apple devices and accessibility.
Smashing Magazine provides a bevy of relevant and practical information for developers wanting to ensure their designs are accessible and inclusive.
It’s Really About Being Involved in the Design
When your website isn’t designed to include people with physical disabilities, you are not only excluding a valuable collection of voices and perspectives, but you’re failing to provide others a chance to be a part of the conversation and contribute.
Throughout her own journey with MS, Clarke has found “It’s that people want to be seen and heard. That’s when they’re more likely to interact with your digital platform or use it.”
She recalls an experience with a local neuroplasticity expert who works with people who have MS. He has an “online gym” to help people strengthen and develop their neural pathways and cognition, she says. Consequently, a platform that Clarke once considered a “nightmare” to navigate has seen marked improvement—largely due to feedback from people with disabilities, including MS.
“Now I'll tell everybody about it,” Clarke says. “I send whoever to him, whenever. “Because, first of all, I love what he does. And second of all, I feel like they’re making improvements to actually support the community they serve.”
In a digital landscape that has historically excluded users with physical disabilities, greater accessibility is ultimately what each of our organizations should strive to accomplish.