Making digital technologies accessible to all

The Oxford English dictionary defines accessibility firstly, as how easy something is to reach, enter, use or see and secondly, as how easy something is to reach, enter or use for somebody with a disability. In the second instance, accessibility means people with disabilities are not excluded from using something as a result of their disability and that they can do what they need to do, in a similar amount of time, in a similar way and with a similar amount of effort as someone who does not have a disability.

Why is digital accessibility important?

Digital accessibility means that all people can use the exact same technology, regardless of whether they can use a mouse, have a vision or hearing impairment or how they process information but for many people with disabilities, this simply isn’t the case. The short film below provides a brief introduction to digital accessibility.

To fully understand what is meant by digital accessibility, you need to experience how technological barriers feel. You can do this by turning off your computer monitor and trying to type; using your phone from under a table; unplugging your mouse and trying to navigate a website; increasing the zoom level on a document or web page to 500% or unplugging your speakers and watching a webinar without sound. Digital technology has the ability to provide access and independence but when technology is not made accessible it creates barriers, therefore accessible technology is important so that as many people as possible can use computers, websites and social media, allowing them to participate independently in society.

Research undertaken by Reason Digital via Populus and Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index in 2020 shows that:

  • people with disabilities are over 50% more likely to face barriers to accessing digital and online services than people without disabilities
  • if you have an impairment you are three times more likely not to have the skills to access devices and get online.

And the covid-19 pandemic which forced everyone online more, has now widened the digital divide further, showing accessibility is no longer a ‘nice to have’, as starkly illustrated in the video below, which shows Labour MP Vicky Foxcroft asking a question at Prime Minister’s Questions on 14 April 2021, over one year into the coronavirus pandemic

Accessible technology versus assistive technology

Accessible technology is technology that can be used easily by people with a wide range of functional abilities, allowing each user to use it in the ways that work best for him or her. When using a computer for example, there are many ways to input information, say with a mouse, the keyboard, or through a speech recognition system. Accessible technology can be directly accessible, meaning it is usable without the need for additional devices, or accessible through and compatible with assistive technology.

Assistive technology is the term used to describe devices, equipment and software that help people with disabilities live more independently, so for example a smartphone with a built in screen reader is directly accessible and an online job application is compatible with assistive technology when someone with a visual impairment can navigate it using a screen reader.

You can learn more about the range of assistive technology available and the impact and benefits of accessible and assistive technology below.

People with disabilities are your audience

The charity Scope reports that at least one in five people in the UK have a long term illness, impairment or disability. Many more have a temporary disability and others will become disabled in old age. People with disabilities are everywhere and everyone.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is audience.jpg
Photo by Gerd Altmann

However, as a society, we treat people with disabilities differently and in doing so exclude them, forcing them to find adjustments simply so they can access information or services other people take for granted. In turn companies:

  • alienate people with disabilities
  • limit the size of their audience
  • potentially put others in danger of missing out on essential information.

Accessibility issues may affect those with vision and hearing impairments; neurodiversity such as dyslexia, seizures, autism, or other cognitive differences; learning difficulties; mobility issues including arthritis, quadriplegia or spinal cord injuries and mental health such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD, depression, or ADHD, so when designing anything it is important to consider the range of people who need to use the product or service. You can learn more about this on the GOV.UK website below.

What accessibility isn’t

Accessibility isn’t about changing existing content or making alternative content specifically for people with disabilities but designing content that can be used for everyone, aiming to be inclusive at all times and being inclusive regardless of who you are writing for. There is no doubt it is a difficult task to get right every time for everyone but ultimately, it is the right thing to do and will also enable you to reach the largest possible audience for your business. You can learn more about inclusive design on the Microsoft website below.

Getting started

Want to create accessible websites and social media but don’t know where to start? Here are some tips.

Alternative (alt) text

Alt text describes an image to someone who cannot see by reading the text aloud to users of screen reader software. If adding a photo of say a plate of food, a bad description would be ‘a plate of food’. A good description would describe the food, say ‘A plate of fish and chips’.

You can learn more about screen readers and alt text below.

Not sure how to add alt text to your social media posts? Instructions can be found below.

Colour contrast

How easy is it for you to read the number in the image below?

The number 74 formed by shades of green bubbles on a circular background of orange and brown bubbles.

When designing images, it is important to consider the colours you use. Pastel coloured backgrounds with pale text are almost impossible to read if you have low vision or visual impairment. Black text on a white background is also difficult for people with dyslexia to read. Where possible, use an off white or pale background with dark text. You can learn more about colour contrast below.

Emojis

Screen reading technology reads emoji descriptions out loud, so try to use no more than three at a time and avoid adding lines of emojis. You should also check the name of the emoji you are using, to make sure it means what you think it does.

Interested in hearing how a screen reader handles mass emojis? Take a look at Twitter page of Alexa Henrich.

Fonts and special characters

People with dyslexia, learning and visual impairments can struggle to read some fonts, so choose easy to read fonts like Arial, Helvetica, Calibri or Verdana and avoid italics and special characters.

Interested in hearing how a screen reader handles fonts and symbols? Take a look at the Twitter page of Kent C Dodds.

GIFs

Colour contrast is also an issue with GIFs. Flashing images can trigger symptoms in people who have epilepsy or get migraines and can cause seizures. To ensure GIFs are accessible, make sure they do not flash more than three times per second, check the colour contrast ratios if the GIF includes text, add alt text if possible and describe the GIF in accompanying text.

A hashtag drawn in sand.
Image by Tanja-Denise Schantz.

Hashtags

To make hashtags more accessible, use capital letters at the start of each word. This is known as camel case and it enables screen readers to recognise the words, making your content more readable to people with dyslexia or cognitive disabilities. Also, use hashtags at the end of a post so as not to disrupt the flow.

Headings

Headings are an important part of web accessibility. They aid readability of a web page for all readers by splitting it into sections so helping readers scan the page and find information quickly. However, headings are essential for assistive technologies such as screen readers which use them as signposts to navigate a web page. To make your headings as useful as possible:

  • Use headings in hierarchical order. This means a <h2> heading should always follow a <h1> heading and so on.
  • Only use one <h1> heading per web page.
  • Don’t skip headings, for example, using a <h2> heading followed by a <h4> heading.
  • Headings should describe the content that follows it
Woman wearing a mustard coloured hat covering one eye with her hand.
Photo by Javad Esmaeili.

Images

It is difficult for people with visual impairments to read text that has been embedded in an image, so make sure any such images are accompanied by a text description that can be read by a screen reader. 

Plain English

Writing in plain English is important if your message is to be understood by as many people as possible. You can learn more about Plain English in the Plainly Speaking blog post on this website.

Videos without captions or audio description

People who are deaf or have a hearing impairment are unable to access the information without captions or a transcript, so when creating video content, always add captions to your videos, make transcripts available for longer videos, add audio description to your videos and provide a summary of the video in accompanying text.

Designing for accessibility

For more information about designing for accessibility, visit the websites below.

Sources

GOV.UK

Other sources

Disability facts and figures

Further information

Bee.

© Toni Louise Abram at Izzy Wizzy. All Rights Reserved.

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