Why is accessibility important in your development practices?

August 8, 2017

Last weekend I attended WordCamp Minneapolis / St.Paul with some of my coworkers. One of the presentations I went to was called “Why A11y?” presented by local website accessibility expert Joe Dolson. In his talk Joe went over some of the reasons why accessibility is an important part of any successful development project.

Here are some of the key points I learned from his talk:

1. The laws behind accessibility pertaining to electronic information

Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Section 504

States that any program receiving federal funds may not discriminate based on disability.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Section 508

Bars the federal government from procuring electronic information technology that is not accessible to people with disabilities.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

  • Does not directly address accessibility of the internet.
  • Title II: “communications with persons with disabilities must be as effective as communication with others”.
  • Title III: Public accommodation of people with disabilities (and the internet is considered “public” domain).

These laws tell designers and developers in some cases they are required to produce products that are accessible. The caveat, however, is that there aren’t clear instructions written within these laws on how to go about being fully compliant with them.

Enforcement of these laws can be difficult, expensive, and irregular. The definitions of website accessibility are not regulated for most types of business. There are also issues when updates to laws do not equal updates to software – so companies could become non-compliant if an update to software doesn’t take accessibility into consideration.

2. The need for accessible software is everywhere

The reaches of needing accessible software goes far beyond just government and school websites. Think about someone searching for a job online who is only able to navigate using two keys on the keyboard. If the job application isn’t accessible they cannot apply for that job.

Another example might be the time management software a company uses to track employee’s hours or perhaps the benefits management website the company uses.

Some examples used in schools include:

  • learning software
  • educational games
  • program enrollment and student information management
  • grade reporting and retrieval
  • electronic text books
  • educational videos

In order to function in today’s world there are many, many tools that need to be accessible for someone with a disability to be successful at work, school, and home.

3. What if accessibility isn’t in the contract? What can we do about it?

To put it simply: Accessibility should be fundamental to any software project, not an additional add-on.

Contracts should define what is considered accessible for any given project and there are three levels defined by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

  • Level A (basic)
  • Level AA (will become the standard in 2018)
  • Level AAA (specialized and difficult to achieve)

As for what we, as developers, can do about creating accessible products? Most importantly we should care. In the end it should matter to you whether or not a the end product you create is accessible.  If you care, you will start to think about accessibility as an integral part of your client contracts from the beginning which will lead to building accessible applications, tools, plugins, and themes.

4. But wait, how do I meet the requirements?

Joe’s talk didn’t get into the weeds of how to meet specific accessibility guidelines, but some of the key things he noted were:

  • Write semantic HTML
  • Use ARIA if you need additional semantics
  • Think about the organization of your page content from a screen reader perspective
  • Features using JavaScript that illicit changes in the DOM need to be conveyed
  • Use image alt tags
  • Keyboard accessibility – you should be able to navigate the entire project using shift and shift + tab (forward and back)
  • Labeling on form fields – when you click on a label make sure you are focused on the correct field

If you are looking for additional guidance on how to make your software or website accessible the How to Meet WCAG 2.0 is an excellent resource.


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