Designing for accessibility is designing for everyone

Digital accessibility is an important topic, not only from a legislative and societal awareness point of view, but also from a product design and innovation perspective. Designing websites and applications with inclusivity in mind has been proven to create better design choices and to improve usability for all users.

In the digital design context, implementing accessibility is the practice of building content and applications for people with all ability levels, including individuals with visual, motor, auditory, speech, or cognitive disabilities. Someone with a disability must be able to experience web-based services, content and other digital products with the same successful outcome as those without disabilities. While accessibility was once seen as a “nice-to-have”-feature, it has now become a standard for many companies to build their services employing the standards of accessible design.

Elina, I’m really surprised to see you cut down so much of your paper… You are neither using outside information nor hyperlinks… The picture of Heini needs to be adjusted to the text.

Accessible and universal design explained

Heini Könönen wrote her master’s thesis on accessibility in digital service development processes and some of her current tasks in a company called Columbia Road also include working with accessibility. Photo: Columbia Road

“The principle of universal design is designing from the beginning for everyone. It’s the easiest, cheapest and overall best way to implement accessible design,” says design consultant Heini Könönen. 

Universal design can be understood with this example from non-digital life: when building for a wheelchair user, adding a ramp to a building after the stairs are finished could be much more difficult if the architects did not take it into account and leave enough room for it in the beginning. Adding the stairs afterwards requires extra budget, planning, work and resources, which in turn increases the cost of the project. Instead, the team could consider and budget for accessibility needs like the ramp right from the beginning of the design process. This is often called universal design. 

“Accessibility has been researched to improve usability for everyone. And when everyone can use the service, the client base is much larger.”

─ Heini Könönen

In this case, the accessibility requirements fit the overall design more naturally, and there is less need to make extra modifications after the design is finished and implemented. There should not be separate designs for people with special needs, and instead, the “mainstream” solutions should be usable for everyone despite their challenges.

If you’re active on social media, you may have noticed a rising trend in implementing accessibility; subtitles, added alt text and tone tags are more and more common on various social media platforms. “Captioning is definitely a really good example of how accessibility benefits all users. Originally, subtitles were just for those who are hard of hearing but now they are very common everywhere,” Heini says. The increased amount of consideration for disabled people creates shifts in how people consume online media; the successful advocacy of disability rights groups has also made subtitles and captions a particularly prominent feature in many applications. Captions can also benefit those with, for instance, a sleeping roommate, a temporary hearing loss or users who happen to be in a noisy environment.

One can find themselves momentarily one-handed for various reasons.
Photo: GettyImages

Situational handicaps

Accessibility techniques are designed specifically to improve access for people with disabilities. However, they often have far-reaching benefits related to general readability, comprehension, and findability. “Every user faces situational disabilities, which means, for example, if you’re in a loud place you can’t hear well, you can benefit from subtitles, or if you’re carrying a child in one hand, you’re one handed for a moment,” Heini explains situational handicaps. 

“For a long time, digital services were just an extra add on, and it was nice to be able to do things online. Now that all services are moving online,  you don’t really have non-digital alternatives.”

─ Heini Könönen

At European companies, adopting inclusive design patterns has become more and more of a norm thanks to new laws that impose them to comply with WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). However, accessibility should not be seen as something that is either obligatory or beneficial for the company monetarily; accessibility translates into equal opportunities for everyone to use and to benefit from new technologies, it is a human right to be able to use digital services without difficulty.

Photo: Drudesk

Cover photo: Esri.com

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