What the pandemic has reminded us about web accessibility
The Internet is for everyone – but it won’t be until it can be accessed without limitation. - Vinton Cerf
Over the course of my research into web accessibility, it seems as though its traction has been dictated by “moments”. Headlines and court cases that bring into sharp focus just how important the idea of an inclusive web truly is. It happened when a man by the name of Guillermo Robles fought all the way to the Supreme Court against Domino's pizza for the right to order a pizza easily as a blind customer. It happened when Beyoncé was sued for an inaccessible website, and showed how quickly corrective changes could be made to allow everyone to engage with products and content.
It feels like the recent pandemic created one of those moments too. It was a period of time where nearly all purchasing, browsing, and communicating needed to happen online. Data from the U.K.-based Office for National Statistics shows that the pandemic caused a sharp rise in the use of digital services, particularly amongst older populations - 54% of over 50s now use the internet at least once every three months, up from 47% in 2019.
There are typically a number of barriers to the web for this age group, ranging from lack of confidence or familiarity with using devices and the web, to age-related impairments such as reduced visual acuity or cognition, even though they don’t identify as disabled. Recent YOUGOV research found that 63% said they found the layout of sites overly complicated, while 20% indicated a preference for larger text and 22% wanted the website content to be easier to understand.
For me, there are two things you should focus on when faced with information like this, from any age group:
Unsurprisingly, simplicity tends to be the solution for a lot of these complaints, along with an awful lot of common accessibility issues. A simple, linear layout helps those navigating with a screen reader or only a keyboard, as well as those unfamiliar with the web as a whole, find what they’re looking for easier. Clearly written content without jargon and acronyms helps both those with learning disabilities, and those unfamiliar with a topic. The web’s obsession with all-singing, all-dancing online experiences usually results in amazing the few and excluding the many.
A lot of sites are starting to integrate with device and browser settings to make it easier for users with access needs to browse the web. For example, a user can specify in browsers like Google Chrome if they’d prefer a larger font size, or reduced motion. Sites can easily tap into these settings, meaning that every site a user visits *could* reflect this preference by upping their font size, or slowing or stopping an animation automatically as they reach it. If every site did this, a user would only need to decide on a preference once, and have it reflected in every site they visited.
Overall we can never get it right 100% of the time. However, by ensuring that you always honour ease-of-use in your sites, allow them to adapt to user preferences where you can, and solve the issues that users share with you, you’re showing just how important it is for the web to be available for everyone. This is the best way to keep everyone engaged with the topic.