Accessibility and universal design in the digital age

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Photo: Thinkstock/Federico Caputo
Photo: Thinkstock/Federico Caputo

An accessibility gap has been created, and it's only getting bigger, says Digital Pulp's chief creative officer.

First introduced by architect Ronald L. Mace, the concept of Universal Design focuses on designing all products and environments to be usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone—regardless of their age, ability or status in life. This idea emerged from an earlier concept of "barrier-free" environments that Japan and much of Europe have employed for decades. One of the best examples of universal design is the dropped/ramped sidewalk curb—a simple idea first pioneered by Selwyn Goldsmith in 1963. This breakthrough was initially focused on helping people in wheelchairs navigate sidewalks, but is also widely appreciated by parents with strollers, kids with bikes and scooters and anyone transporting heavy loads on wheels.

Today, we live in a country where ramps, lifts and kneeling buses are commonplace, but our understanding of and attention to what it means for an environment to be accessible continues to evolve as the virtual world grows.

The accessibility gap
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits any discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of "places of public accommodations." Traditionally, these have included grocery stores, parks, gyms, theatres and restaurants, but the definition of "public accommodations" clearly needs to be updated. Many in the disability rights community and beyond argue that websites are, in fact, places of public accommodation because they are gateways to physical locations. Additionally, a growing number of brands and institutions are moving to exclusively digital platforms. 

What does this mean for people with disabilities? The reality is that an accessibility gap has been created, and it’s only getting bigger. District and federal courts are split, and the Department of Justice recently placed its once-planned website accessibility regulations under Titles II and III of the ADA on an inactive list, which means that for the time being, the only official standard that site owners should follow are the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines. We can hope that a future administration resumes Title II and Title III work and outlines guidelines and requirements that more effectively serve our communities.

Empathy is key
When it comes down to it, if you don’t have to use a screen reader every single day, you probably don’t know how frustrating it is to access even the simplest interfaces or information. Elemental actions and tasks become a challenge, forcing thought and effort behind planning and structure. A blind user, for example, doesn’t have a screen, typography, colors, icons and animations to reference for queues, priorities and interaction. For these users, a verbal version of the site is the only practical way to leverage its functionality and content. Basic usability paired with accessibility is now essential but is often downplayed, overlooked or completely ignored.

Time to be proactive
As more and more people are realizing that complex digital experiences are leaving them behind, the need for addressing accessibility has become critical. Digital accessibility shouldn’t feel like a hassle; it should be viewed as a chance to proactively make a difference in the lives of all website users—regardless of ability level—and improve the universal usability of your digital environment. Accessible design is better design.

Details matter
There are many challenges to implementing effective accessibility. Using proper HTML semantic structure for screen readers, carefully planning the ordering and language of menu systems, color contrast ratios, use of text over images, inaccessible brand colors, and type size ratios are just the beginning. Our agency recently worked with a client who spent a great deal of time and money on the design of a new brand and logo only to find that it wasn’t accessible. We hope that branding agencies will begin to acknowledge these realities and integrate accessibility requirements into their work. Beyond these practical adjustments, there are also accessibility guidelines that are content-targeted and open to interpretation, making the review and refinement process endlessly complex.

At the end of the day, whether we’re constructing a building, a website or an app, they should be accessible to all people. Now is the time for designers and developers to leap ahead of the regulations and make their digital experiences more accessible and user friendly. It might feel laborious at times, but this process will make our experiences and designs better, fulfilling the promise of Universal Design. To quote the great Frank Zappa, "The enemy of art is the absence of limitations."

Gene Lewis is Chief Creative Officer and Partner at Digital Pulp.