Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2024:

Understanding the Importance of Accessibility in Design

By Teresa Calouro, Junior Product Designer & Accessibility Specialist

Published: May 16, 2024 in Blog

Every year, the third Thursday of May marks Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), a day devoted to raising awareness and promoting digital accessibility and inclusive design. This global initiative encourages businesses, developers, and creators to design and implement solutions that prioritize equal access for all users, regardless of their abilities. Accessibility may sometimes seem like a buzzword, but what does it truly mean, who is it intended for, and what roles can design have in creating more accessible digital experiences?

What Is Accessibility and Why Is It Important?

Accessibility is the result of designing products, services, environments, and technologies that prioritize the experiences of over 1 billion people globally who live with disabilities – whether physical, cognitive, sensory, or other invisible disabilities. It ensures that every individual can fully engage with and enjoy the same experiences.

Given the ubiquity of digital experiences in our everyday lives, it’s more important than ever to ensure that they are accessible and usable by all. In public spaces, people who use wheelchairs may be excluded from certain areas if there are no elevators or ramps. Likewise, many digital experiences fail to offer proper accommodations, even though they should be designed with the same considerations in mind. By prioritizing inclusivity and equality in your designs, you can reach a broader audience and unlock growth opportunities in your industry.

Square wooden pieces arranged on a colourful wood plank background, forming the word 'impossible,' with a depiction of a person pushing the 'im' away.

What Are Disabilities and Who Do They Affect?

Disabilities are conditions that affect or impair a person’s physical, sensory, cognitive, or emotional abilities. Disability can occur on a spectrum and every disabled person’s lived experience is unique. For example, two people who have been diagnosed with ADHD (a cognitive disability) can experience different levels of difficulty. According to the World Health Organization, over 1 billion people (about 15% of the global population) currently live with a disability, a number that continues to rise as the population ages. According to StatsCan, one-in-three working Canadians will experience a disability lasting longer than 90 days during their working lives. We often think of the term “disability” in black and white: either someone is disabled (often assuming visibly) or not. We forget that things like breaking your arm, developing a short-term illness, or the degradation of our senses as we age all constitute as disabilities. It’s tempting to want to cut corners or only cater an experience to ‘the majority’ of users – but the reality is designing with accessibility at the forefront of our mind creates better more usable experiences for everyone using a product.

Accessibility Features Are All Around You

Have you ever used text-to-speech to write a message while on the go? Or had your car read your text messages out loud, allowing you to keep your focus on the road while you drive? Have you ever used closed captions when you can’t hear the dialogue clearly in your favorite show?

(If you answered yes to any of these, you’ve used an accessibility feature.)

Many features we take for granted today were originally developed as accessibility tools. Text-to-speech was originally created for people with motor or visual impairments, audiobooks were developed for those with visual impairments and reading impairments, and closed captions were created for people with hearing impairments. What was once assumed to be for the benefit of a ‘small percentage’ of users have become functionalities that are used by the masses.

Over-the-shoulder photo of a person's hands on a braille display.

Designing with Accessibility in Mind: A Business Perspective

Accessible design is like baking blueberry muffins: if you forget to add the blueberries to the batter, it’s nearly impossible to add them in after the muffins are baked. Many companies offer what are called “accessibility overlays”. They are add-ons that promise to make previously inaccessible websites fully compliant with WCAG standards, offering a quick fix by injecting necessary “accessible” code into the website’s existing code like alt text and keyboard navigation. These overlays are like sprinkling blueberries on top of the muffins and claiming it’s the same as if they were baked in.

The quick fix overlays usually change the inherent functionality of websites and cause more issues than they solve. They break existing interactions, add frustrating navigation traps, and often make experiences even more difficult for the user. This can be incredibly frustrating for users who rely on assistive technology such as screen readers, braille displays, or keyboards to navigate webpages and apps. Each person is accustomed to the functionality of their own assistive technology, having already spent ample time learning to use it and customizing it to suit their needs. These overlays disrupt the interaction patterns they are used to and rely on, often resulting in a worse user experience or rendering the interface nearly useless to many users.

Only 3% of the internet is fully accessible to people with disabilities, which means 97% of the internet can be very frustrating to navigate. In a world so driven by digital experiences, this puts disabled people in even more of a precarious situation, limiting their ability to participate appropriately not only in physical spaces, but digital ones as well. While the accessibility overlays may have once seemed to be a quick and easy solution to this (but are not, as you now know), nothing will achieve the optimal experience better than including accessibility in the design process from the beginning.

Designing with accessibility in mind from the beginning is not only a moral imperative; it also offers significant business benefits:

  • Reduced Retroactive Changes: Designing for accessibility from the start avoids costly adjustments or redesigns later in the process.
  • Minimized Legal Risks: Ensuring compliance from the outset helps avoid potential legal fees, fines, and reputational damage.
  • Broader Audience Reach: Accessible products appeal to a larger audience, including people with disabilities and older adults, leading to higher sales and engagement.

Designers can prioritize accessibility by incorporating inclusive design principles throughout the entire creative process. This involves, first and foremost, being aware of accessibility standards and incorporating them early and often. Designers should focus on developing accessible design systems that meet key standards such as passing accessible contrast ratios, verifying correct font sizes, and ensuring appropriate target area sizes. By verifying designs through tests with a variety of assistive technologies, designers can create experiences that accommodate all users. User testing that includes individuals with disabilities is the most effective method for gaining a true understanding of how your product works for them. While non-disabled creators can simulate experiences and make educated guesses, including people with disabilities in testing offers invaluable insights and feedback. This thoughtful approach to accessibility not only results in more intuitive and user-friendly designs, but also opens products to a larger audience and builds meaningful relationships of trust with users.

Designers Can Drive Change

Engage your friends, family, team, and stakeholders in discussions about accessibility and advocate for it in any way that you can. This is the first step toward creating a more inclusive digital world. By keeping the conversation going, you can ensure that accessibility never falls by the wayside. Every bit helps, and each conversation you have raises awareness and contributes to a more equitable and inclusive future.

Wooden cubes on an orange background, with the first two cubes partially rotated to reveal the word 'accessible' from 'possible.

Resources for Learning More

Governments worldwide have established laws and standards to enforce accessibility. Canada’s legal requirements are outlined in the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), which aims to make Canada barrier-free by 2040 by identifying, removing, and preventing barriers to accessibility in areas under federal jurisdiction. Each province has its own accessibility guidelines that provide more specific standards (e.g., the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act [AODA]).

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of international guidelines for making web content accessible to everyone, especially people with disabilities. The WCAG includes many success criteria and offers standards and recommendations to guide web developers and designers in creating inclusive digital experiences. As of August 8, 2023, WCAG 2.2 is the most recent version of these guidelines.

Here are some additional ways to get involved:

  • Online Courses: Platforms such as Coursera and edX offer courses on digital accessibility and inclusive design.
  • Communities: Organizations like the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) and local accessibility groups provide resources and support.
  • Online Resources: The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) website offers extensive resources on WCAG and other accessibility standards.

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