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Web Accessibility: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Making Their Work Accessible

May 21, 2020

Blog — Web Accessibility: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Making Their Work Accessible

5 min read

Lucas Silbernagel

In this featured blog post, Juno Alum Lucas Silbernagel discusses the importance of prioritizing accessibility on the modern web. Lucas is a recent graduate of Juno's Web Development Immersive Bootcamp.

What is Web Accessibility?

Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web once said:

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.

According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organization for the internet, web accessibility means designing web experiences and technologies that can be used and contributed to by anybody. This includes people with auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual disabilities.

The benefits of web accessibility extend far beyond these groups, however. Consider the elderly, whose abilities have changed due to aging. Consider people with “temporary disabilities” like a broken arm or missing glasses. Consider the wide variety of scenarios that limit or change how people interact with the internet, including devices with smaller screens like smart watches, regions with slow or poor internet connections, limited bandwidth, and situations where people either can’t listen to audio due to their surroundings, or can’t easily view their screen due to bright sunlight.

Web accessibility practices make the internet better for everybody by overcoming these and other obstacles.

W3C recommends best practices for improving web accessibility through their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). First published in 1999, these guidelines are continually updated and improved. WCAG 2.0 was published in 2008, with further criteria added in 2018 as WCAG 2.1. There are plans to release another minor update in late 2020, with a major overhaul expected to be published by the end of 2022. Governments around the world have been taking note, many of them passing accessibility legislation with serious consequences for those who fail to comply. In 2017, a Federal Court in Florida cited the WCAG guidelines in their finding that Winn Dixie Store, Inc., violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make its website accessible to the visually impaired. In the UK, a business owner can be sued for discrimination if their website is not accessible. As of 2012, the Canadian government requires all online content to meet the requirements of WCAG 2.0.

As WCAG continues to update international accessibility standards, governments around the world will no doubt follow suit. This is great news for all internet users, but especially for those with disabilities. Take the visually impaired, for example. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are 285 million visually impaired people in the world. Of these, 39 million are legally blind and the remaining 246 million have low vision. Blind and visually impaired people often feel cut off from the world; tasks such as driving, using public transportation, watching television, shopping, and even making a living range from difficult to impossible. Accessibility initiatives in the physical realm, such as tactile sidewalk paving, are sometimes poorly implemented.

How can I keep improving web accessibility as a developer?

Fortunately, web technology is an industry that evolves quickly, and it seems that there are more accessibility-related technologies and techniques available every day. The Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome browsers have excellent accessibility tools and extensions: Google Lighthouse, for example, allows developers to instantly run a detailed audit of a site’s accessibility, including recommendations for improvements, along with audits for performance, search engine optimization (SEO), and general best practices.

Chrome is also experimenting with a tool that allows developers to emulate visual deficiencies in order to learn more about how people with low vision interact with a website. These and other innovations, encouraged and enforced by accessibility legislation, mean a better internet for everyone.

Web development is a wide and ever-expanding field with many areas of specialization, each of them able to afford a lifetime of work and study. As one of those specializations, accessibility can appear overwhelming at first, but the key is to tackle one small piece at a time.

You can start by remembering the basics:

  • Add alt tags for all images considered to be content
  • Make all elements focusable to enable keyboard navigation
  • Make sure text has a high enough colour contrast against the page background
  • Give form elements a visible active state
  • Use the aria-label attribute to make content “visible” to screen readers

And so on! As you become comfortable incorporating these practices, you can also begin to run your projects through accessibility audits such as Google Lighthouse. If you know anyone who has a disability that might hinder their ability to use the internet, consider asking them what their pain points are.

For example, my best friend who I have known since childhood has had low vision his entire life. He uses magnification and text to speech technologies in order to read, and advised that the “bane of his existence” is a website dropdown menu that disappears when the cursor is moved off of it.

Web developers can learn a lot about improving accessibility from other fields too. As a former anthropologist, I am keenly interested in user experience (UX) design and research. Anthropology is the study of humanity, human behaviour, culture, and society in both the past and present. This dovetails perfectly with the mission of UX design and UX research, which is to understand and learn from product users in order to improve the experience and ease of use for those users.

Research of this kind usually involves mapping out user journeys and discussing pain points with users directly through surveys, focus groups, and interviews. What better way to use these skills and insights than to make the internet accessible for all?

In short, we have a long way to go before people with disabilities are able to use the internet with the same ease as people without disabilities, but we continue to make progress. As builders of the modern web, it is up to us to be the change.

For quick tips, updates, and information on web accessibility, I highly recommend checking out The A11Y (Accessibility) Project and following the #A11Y hashtag. Please also share your tips and insights with me @LucasCodePro on Twitter!

Ready to learn more about designing with the user in mind?

Created for designers, developers, and project managers, our Live Online UX Design course will teach you the process of enhancing user satisfaction. You'll learn how to improve the usability, accessibility, and enjoyment of the user experience. Check out the syllabus below:

Download our UX Design Course Package

This blog was originally published on Medium. Check out Lucas's portfolio here!

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