Book review: Accessibility for everyone

We recently added Laura Kalbag’s excellent book, Accessibility for everyone, to our reading list and it’s certainly one of our favourites: as website designers and developers, it is vital to helping guide our working practices for designing and developing more accessible websites. There are so many considerations in making inclusive design work on the web. When it comes to accessibility, Laura has really taken the time and care to explain the reasons why web accessibility matters and what we mean by accessible design. In this review I’ve gone through some of the key areas of the book which I thought had some really valuable considerations essential to all the projects we work on.

Empathy

Essential to an understanding of accessibility is empathy, which Laura described with great clarity and relevance as to how best approach creating products for other people to fit their needs. One point that sticks with me is that:

the average accessibility professional is older than the average web professional

We’re well aware of the physical and mental challenges we’ll face as we get older, but designing and developing the web to meet these challenges; serving older audiences isn’t something we get right all the time. It’s pleasing to see this topic highlighted in the book and is something I think we’re all more aware of now as a result. Having a disability is much more widespread than some may think and, as Laura states, 16% of the UK’s working-age adults have a disability. This amounts to over 11 million people.

Assistive software and hardware

Over my past decade working in the web industry, I’ve heard of, and occasionally seen, a small range of screen readers in use by people with varied levels of vision impairment. There are many different kinds of users dependent on these technologies and within the book there’s a good overview for all the main types of technology currently available. This includes different examples of built-in voice feedback for desktop and mobile operating systems, add-on software for screen reading, speech recognition, page navigators and eye trackers.

Types of disability

Laura divides this into five main areas concerned with using the web, including people with seizures plus visual, cognitive, motor, vestibular and auditory impairments. Clearly each of these impairments make for significant challenges that need to be catered for in making websites easier to interactive with, navigate, and understand. The chapter analyses specific solutions to help remove the barriers of use that would otherwise stop users with such impairments from using a website.

Planning for accessibility

Often it’s necessary to justify to a client or product’s stakeholder why taking the time to make their existing website more accessible matters. This chapter provides a strong set of cases to explain why it matters not only for competitiveness and meeting legal requirements, but it also has many other benefits such as efficiency and findability. Furthermore, search engines like Google are more likely to rank your website higher in its index when accessible features form a key aspect of the website’s user interface and technical architecture.

The chapter highlights matters including device testing and learning from research that offer better insight into how others interact with your website. The best examples of accessible websites like Gov.uk have spent a lot of time undertaking user research and testing to observe how users with different impairments perform different tasks and what challenges they face.

Later on in the book, Laura goes on to look directly at the importance of testing and evaluating the outcomes in making a website more accessible. Having a detailed plan and testing matrix can offer a much more robust approach to testing different features for accessibility. You shouldn’t just rely on tools and technologies to validate your tests but should involve actual users, which is why it’s vitally important to plan for usability testing in a project’s timeframe. Testing with a range of people with different impairments very likely highlights more issues than just using your internal team.

Laura suggests some helpful techniques for finding participants to test your product: how to choose them, what tests to run and how to facilitate them without making the user feel uncomfortable and pressured.

Content and design

Learning from tried and tested methods is something Laura goes on to discuss very well and how following convention and being the same as others isn’t necessarily bad in the context of accessible design. It can be just as easy to make a design unusable, as it is to make usable, when it comes to considering how many types of user can navigate the contents of a website fully and have equal access to all its content. Good navigation and wayfinding form an essential aspect of strong information architecture.

Progressive enhancement

Less obvious to the subject of accessibility on the web is the consideration we give to users dependent on older technology, which may not fully support more modern approaches to web standards and design. Further into this chapter, Laura goes on to discuss the practical challenges and solutions to make websites accessible for such users. Graceful degradation is one such method: providing an experience that’s always adequate for all though it may not be comparable to the experience found in modern browsers.

Laws and guidelines

Concluding this excellent book, Laura goes on to talk about the range of laws, standards and guidelines which different countries and regions set out. She makes the very valid point that if your justification for making your website available to a wide audience is purely not to get sued then, “perhaps creating products for other people isn’t for you”.

Within the UK, EU and US it can be considered discriminatory against users with impairments if they are unable to access and use your website. The chapter goes onto look at a variety of internationally recognised guidelines for web accessibility and how to keep up with an evolving landscape of new standards and laws to try and make the web more accessible for everyone.

Review conclusions

Accessibility is one of the things I care about the most in making the web more inclusive and enjoyable for all. The book Accessibility for everyone helps reinforce my viewpoint and forms a valuable resource to learning more about accessibility. It raises awareness to a variety of impairments, assistive technology, laws, standards and solutions to address challenges in accessible design for the web.

Buy Accessibility for everyone from A Book Apart store

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