According to the CDC, 26% of people in the United States are currently living with a disability. And as of 2021, 95% of Americans utilize the Internet. What this data tells us is that if your organization is hosting content online, your audience includes those living with disabilities. In 2023, creating content that is accessible is a necessity—but creating accessible content benefits everyone, not just those living with disabilities.
Here's one example: By providing alternative text for images, Blind or low vision individuals can use a screen reader to audibly hear a description of the image. Alt-text doesn't just help the Blind or low vision population, though—if an image fails to load, the alt-text will appear for all users, providing additional context. The text is also indexed by search engines like Google, to help provide people with the most relevant search results.
Digital experiences can be made accessible for everyone including those who experience auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual disabilities. To further the conversation around digital accessibility, we spoke with five experts who champion accessibility every day through their work: Alex Clem, marketing and communications coordinator, Disability:IN; John Northup, director of evaluations, WebAIM; Reginé Gilbert, user experience designer, educator, author, and member of Ad Council’s user experience committee; Allision Carnwath, senior front-end technologies director, Reingold; and Anastasia Goodstein, SVP of digital project product management. Here’s what they shared.
Alex Clem serves as the marketing and communications coordinator at Disability:IN. In her role, she prioritizes the intersections between accessibility and inclusive marketing and design across multiple platforms.
Cat Boyce: How can centering accessibility from the beginning of a project benefit everyone?
Alex Clem: Prioritizing accessibility from the get-go doesn’t just benefit people with disabilities–it widens the scope of access to everyone.
The curb cut effect, a phenomenon in which a disability-friendly feature is used for a larger audience than the original target audience, applies to all aspects of accessibility. Closed captions, text messages, and automatic doors were all initially designed for people with disabilities but have been used and enjoyed by all.
Centering accessibility at the forefront of a project can prevent rework, reduce accessibility errors, and ensure everyone can use the product or website. According to a Deque case study, up to 67% of accessibility errors occur in the design stage of a project. While many link accessibility and development together, design heavily dictates accessibility.
Cat: What should organizations keep in mind when centering accessibility in their UX/UI design?
Alex: Something I always keep in mind when approaching my projects are the four principles of accessibility:
- Perceivable: Are users able to perceive the content as it is being presented? If not, is there another way to present it?
- Operable: Can users easily operate the interface and quickly navigate it?
- Understandable: Is the information put forth easily understandable and digestible?
- Robust: Is the information interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies?
The phase “Nothing about us, without us” applies heavily to accessibility as well – include people with different disabilities in all stages of a product, from design to end stage. People with disabilities are the experts of their own experience.
John Northup is the director of evaluations at WebAIM, a leading provider of web accessibility expertise internationally based at the Institute for Disability Research, Policy, and Practice at Utah State University. For more than twenty years, John has worked in web development roles including design, front-end coding, usability, and accessibility.
Cat: What should organizations keep in mind when centering accessibility in their UX/UI design?
John Northup: Accessibility needs buy-in throughout the organization; it isn’t just one person’s job. Individual designers and developers need the knowledge, skills, and tools—and leadership needs to recognize the value and create the processes.
Cat: How important is it to involve people with disabilities in the UX/UI design process and how can they be effectively engaged?
John: Perhaps the most effective way that people with disabilities have contributed is through their participation in the creation and evolution of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG )over the past 24 years. WCAG’s guidelines and success criteria are informed by the experiences and barriers faced by users with a wide range of disabilities. When designers and developers take care to adhere to WCAG, they are building all of these insights into their projects.
The most effective way to involve users with disabilities directly in a project is through usability testing. Design for accessibility and WCAG conformance first, and then involve users with varying disabilities in usability testing later to smooth out any remaining speed bumps.
Reginé Gilbert is the James Weldon Johnson professor atNew York University’s Tandon School of Engineering . She is a user experience designer, educator, and author with over 10 years of experience working in technology and currently is a member of the Ad Council’s User Experience Committee.
Cat: How can centering accessibility from the beginning of a project benefit everyone?
Reginé Gilbert: As a designer, it's essential to consider at the beginning of a project which groups may be unintentionally left out, particularly individuals with disabilities. By making the needs of those with disabilities a priority, designers can develop products that are more accessible to a broader range of users. This approach promotes greater inclusivity and ultimately enhances the experience for everyone.
Cat: What do you think the future of web accessibility looks like? Are there any emerging technologies or new tools that you think will have an impact on the accessibility space?
Reginé: The future of web accessibility will include more automated tools, however, there will still be a need for manual checks. We will likely see more use of artificial intelligence—AI has a lot of positives and negatives, including bias against people with disabilities.
Allison Carnwath is the senior front-end technologies director at Reingold, a full-service strategic communications firm, and a digital partner on our Veterans Crisis Prevention Campaign. She has over 10 years of experience working in front-end development.
Sarah Cummings: How important is it to involve people with disabilities in the UX/UI design process, and how can they be effectively engaged?
Allison Carnwath: Nothing beats actual user feedback to make the best UX/UI possible. When you’re in the weeds of a project, you know exactly how something should work and you think it makes perfect sense—and then you put it in front of someone who has never seen it before, and they don’t know which end is up. It happens all the time. There of course are best practices you can follow, common design patterns, etc. but when everything is put together, getting feedback from fresh eyes always has remarkable value.
When it comes to accessibility, there’s another layer to that, because not everyone accesses the information on your site the same way. Similarly, there are best practices—links should use ‘a’ tags in HTML, color contrast should meet certain mathematical criteria, and so on. But what those best practices can’t tell you is that, for example, the flow when you’re using a keyboard is weird, the way that the popup was announced on a screen reader was confusing, the video with the text on top made you dizzy, and the pause button was hard to find.
Sarah: Do you have any tips for other designers to get buy-in from stakeholders to include accessibility in the process early on?
Allison: Education is key. Folks don’t know what they don’t know. “Accessibility” is a very vague term— many stakeholders are starting to understand it as a nebulous thing that is important, but not actually understanding what it means. If you have an opportunity, show them what it's like to navigate a site with your keyboard rather than a mouse, or put your monitor aside and try to navigate the site just using a screen reader application.
Integrate accessibility into your process by default, so you’re leading by example, and explain it as you go. For example: “This color is a slightly darker variation of our brand red so that it has sufficient contrast against the white text for someone with color blindness,” “While I was fixing this bug, I also updated this <div> to an <a> so that screen reader software will announce it more accurately, and so that users leveraging a keyboard instead of a mouse can access it”).
If empathy doesn’t win them over, there are bottom-line reasons to value accessibility: Case law on this subject is evolving – it used to be that only government websites were subject to “508 compliance,” but more and more businesses are subjected to lawsuits for inaccessible websites. Getting out ahead of this means you’re less of a target, and more prepared for potential future changes to legal requirements.
Anastasia Goodstein is the senior vice president of digital product management at Ad Council, and a seasoned digital leader with more than 20 years of experience in the digital space.
Sarah: How can centering accessibility from the beginning of a project benefit everyone?
Anastasia Goodstein: In t he Ad Council’s mission statement, we say, “We won’t stop until we live in a society where every single person can thrive.” According to the CDC, 1 in 4 U.S. adults are living with some type of disability. For me, centering Web accessibility is part of realizing our mission. By beginning a project in a way that reminds everyone involved of how important it is for our sites to be accessible, the full team including our agency partners understand if we need to adjust colors or make other creative changes to ensure we are reaching every single person. I also think the combination of activism by people with disabilities and visibility around this issue with talks at major tech and design conferences have helped to normalize centering accessibility for many digital agencies.
Sarah: What is something you have learned in the last 10 years as a direct result of incorporating accessibility at the forefront of UX/UI design?
Anastasia: Don’t view accessibility as a burden, view it as an opportunity and challenge to create beautiful design with purpose, that will reach more people.
If you or your organization is looking for tools to begin or further your digital accessibility efforts, we have compiled resources selected by the experts featured in this article.
To learn more about, or to gain insights into digital accessibility:
- Deque University, a program that offers training and in-depth resources for every level and area of expertise in digital accessibility.
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), created by The World Wide Web Consortium ( W3C ) to ensure international standards for the web, that designers and developers can use to assess accessibility.
- WebAIM, provides accessibility tools, evaluation, training, consulting and a newsletter that offer s a wealth of free insights and strategies.
- The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) offers several personas of users with disabilities, which can help designers and developers understand the barriers that users with disabilities face daily.
- The Equal Entry Blog, shares accessibility lessons and stories to help educate the public about accessibility.
- Allied, a podcast by 3PlayMedia on the people innovating and implementing accessibility across industries.
- KR Liu and their work on the All-In playbook at Google.
- Meryl K. Evans, CPACC, a speaker, accessibility consultant, and author who centers her efforts in accessibility within digital and marketing spaces.
- Accessibility for Everyone, a book by Laura Kalbag, which provides insights into web accessibility principles and methods to enhance the inclusivity and usability of websites and digital products for all individuals, including those with disabilities.
- Inclusive Design for a Digital World: Designing with Accessibility in Mind, a book by Reginé Gilbert, that discusses the responsibility of designers and developers to make tech products accessible to all and the importance of accessible design for moral, ethical, and legal reasons.
- A11y Project, a community-driven effort to make digital accessibility easier through education, newsletters, and resources.
To test your websites’ digital accessibility:
- WAVE, WebAIM’s free evaluation tool, that helps identify any accessibility issues and provides human evaluation of the webpage.
- Design patterns and practices from W3C-WAI, to learn how to use accessible semantics defined by the Accessible Rich Internet Application (ARIA) specification to create accessible web experiences for widgets designed for WCAG conformance.
- Color Contrast Checker from WebAIM, which tests the contrast ratio of the foreground and background colors to ensure they are accessible.
- Fable, a hiring company based on “accessibility, powered by people with disabilities,” which helps you find and include people with disabilities during your website build for accessible testing and design support.
- TPGI, an accessibility consultancy that helps clients achieve end-to-end accessibility in their digital assets and help embed accessibility into their processes.
- Stark Plugin for Figma, provides designs with the ability to test the accessibility of their designs in real-time.
- Hemingway App, a tool that reports the readability level of text. While this tool won’t be used for design, it helps ensure the text is accessible for your audience - which is important too!