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Accessibility Foundations: Usage and Examples

Accessibility refers to designing products, services, and environments in sensible, meaningful, and usable ways for as many people as possible. This practice relates to ensuring access for people with disabilities directly or indirectly through the use of assistive technology tools such as wheelchairs or screen reading software.

Simply put, accessibility is about ensuring that all people have equal access and opportunities in categories that include but are not limited to transportation, housing, voting, education, information technology, and telecommunications.

The concept of accessibility is also closely related to the concept of universal design, which refers to designing buildings, environments, and products so they can be used by the maximum number of people possible, regardless of age, ability, or any other factor. The main goal of universal design is to remove barriers to access for everyone, regardless of ability.

Therefore, it’s important to note that accessibility does not only benefit people with disabilities; it is beneficial to everyone, as the following examples will demonstrate.

The Types of Accessibility

There are four major types of accessibility based on different types of disabilities and different barriers people may face when accessing a variety of physical and digital environments:

  1. People with visual impairments - this category includes people who are blind, who have low vision, colour blindness, or have serious difficulty seeing even with glasses
  2. People with hearing impairments - people who are deaf or have serious difficulty hearing
  3. People with mobility impairments - people who have difficulty with physical movements, such as walking or climbing stairs
  4. People with cognitive impairments - people who have difficulty with mental processes such as memory, attention, or problem-solving; this includes individuals with learning disabilities, as well as individuals with mental illnesses

Examples of Accessibility

The most common example of accessibility that all of us encounter on a daily basis is accessibility in architectural design. These everyday examples of accessible design include lifts, escalators, touchless automatic doors, signs, lighting, railings, handrails, ramps, etc.

Even though many of these elements were designed primarily for people with mobility impairments, they have become hugely helpful to everyone, regardless of ability, managing to increase the value and improve the function of all design elements as a whole.

Self-operating doors, for example, benefit people with limited mobility who use wheelchairs, walkers, and other walking assistance devices. But they can also benefit the elderly, parents with strollers and small children, people who have their hands filled with bags and packages, and many others. That is one of the ways accessibility benefits everyone, but it is not the only one.

There are similar examples when it comes to technology. Innovations such as touch screens, voice control, contrast minimums, and autocomplete were originally created to improve accessibility to people with disabilities. However, since then, they have become widely adopted and used by everyone, as these tools significantly improved the general user experience.

These and other creations by companies like Google and Apple have driven their level of technological innovation, which helped them always stay ahead of the curve.

What Is Web Accessibility?

One of the most critical areas of accessibility today lies in the area of the World Wide Web. Web accessibility refers to designing web sites, applications, tools and technologies, products and services in an inclusive manner so that they’re usable by as many people as possible.

Similarly to accessibility in architectural design, web accessibility is not only about removing barriers for people with disabilities in the digital domain. It’s also about benefiting all users such as people using mobile devices or those having slow internet connections and improving everyone’s online experience.

Web accessibility also benefits content creators in several ways:

  • It improves your website’s Search Engine Optimization (SEO), ensuring that users can find your content easier.
  • It enhances your brand, improves your business reputation by demonstrating good ethics and morals, and extends your market reach to more potential customers.
  • It also lowers the risk of potential lawsuits, as accessibility is legislated in many countries.

Accessibility Legislation in the US and the UK

Different countries have different legislation concerning accessibility. In the United Kingdom, the Equality Act 2010 protects people against discrimination, harassment and victimisation in terms of employment and using private and public services based on nine protected characteristics, including disability.

In the United States, accessibility is legislated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a 1990 civil rights law that prohibits employment discrimination and guarantees equal access to public services, transportation, public accommodations, and commercial facilities to people with disabilities.

ADA doesn’t only apply to physical spaces (e.g., schools, restaurants, hospitals, etc.) but also to online domains of businesses (e.g., their websites). However, the ADA doesn’t specify what web creators and designers must do to ensure their web content is accessible.

That’s where Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) come in handy as they set golden standards of international web accessibility standards (with WCAG 2.0 conformance level AA most commonly referenced as the goal for website accessibility). The four major principles of WCAG require web content to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

Examples of Web Accessibility

According to WCAG 2.0 guidelines, these are some (though not all) of the best practices for creating accessible web content that is useful not only to people with disabilities but to all users:

  1. Captions - accurate, synchronised captions for pre-recorded and live video and/or audio content; useful to people with hearing impairments, people with cognitive impairments who have difficulty processing auditory information, people who are learning a new language, as well as people in particularly noisy or quiet environments
  2. Transcripts - non-synchronised text versions of pre-recorded video and/or audio content (such as podcasts) either on the same page or on another linked page; useful to the same people as captions
  3. ALT text - textual descriptions of all images that are not used purely for decorative purposes; useful to people who have visual impairments and those who are using assistive technology tools
  4. Audio description - verbal depictions of key visual elements in pre-recorded video content; useful to individuals with visual impairments, individuals with cognitive disabilities who have difficulty processing visual information or prefer receiving information in auditory form, as well as people learning a new language
  5. Colour contrasts - sufficient colour contrasts between the text (such as captions) and backgrounds and reliance on elements other than colour to convey meaning or information; useful to people with colour blindness or low vision
  6. Keyboard accessibility - ensuring that users can navigate a website using only a keyboard (primarily through the use of keyboard shortcuts and logical tab order); useful to people with mobility impairments or those who prefer not to rely on a mouse for website navigation
  7. Web content responsiveness - ensuring that users can view content accurately on any screen size and in either screen orientation; useful to all users

Additional examples of web accessibility include a skip navigation feature (aka “skip to content” link); option to control auto-playing content and time limits when engaging with web content; avoiding content that can induce seizures such as fast-strobing lights; the ability to resize text up to 200% without loss of content or functionality, etc.

These are some quick insights into the basics of accessibility, as well as its usage and examples in several categories, including the use of information technologies. Accessibility not only improves the lives of people with disabilities but also makes life easier for everyone in various ways we may sometimes take for granted.  

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