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Accessibility

The issue of accessibility, aka A11y, affects a lot more people than many would think. In this series of articles, Frontend Engineers Franziska (Gertz) (Frontend Lead) and Florian (Schubert) (Web App Engineer) show why it’s a relevant issue for almost everyone, how the job doesn’t end with having clear HTML, what POs, developers and designers can do here, and how the US Supreme Court’s ruling against Domino’s may also resonate here in Germany.

In this first installment, we’ll lay the groundwork by starting with one of the most common questions clients ask: “How does this add value for me?”

Accessibility still expandable today

For almost three decades, the internet has given us access to all kinds of information and services around the world. The World Wide Web doesn’t discriminate according to gender, ethnicity or age, and it treats everyone the same – at least in theory.

Sadly, the reality doesn’t quite measure up. While there’s plenty of talk about how particular ideas get favored or censored, there’s another issue that receives very little attention, even though it affects at least 7.8 million people in Germany alone: accessibility.

Why can’t we open up the maximum range of possibilities for those already struggling with everyday barriers? After all, modern web technologies are already enabling entirely new ways to participate in society. So why aren’t we offering the best solutions with added value for everyone, instead of just ensuring basic functionality? In this regard, Germany is far behind. In the US, they now recognize that a lot more needs to be done here, and a Supreme Court ruling against Domino’s Pizza has led to much discussion around the world.

A11y in a nutshell

For most people, the first thing that comes to mind under “accessibility” is probably the classic screen reader. This technology reads a website’s content out loud so that visually impaired people can also interact with it.

Now let’s start with a quick example.

You’ve had a car accident while in Spain. Not too bad and nobody’s injured: it’s just a dent, although a pretty big one. The police are on the scene, the other driver is furious and your high-school Spanish is woefully inadequate. You’re holding your child’s hand to prevent any running into traffic while you try to somehow manage the situation. In other words, major stress. Your insurance company is certainly ready to help, but you’ve got to report the damage right away. With just one hand, on a smartphone, in the glaring sunlight. And suddenly we’ve entered the big wide world of accessibility!

In our small but entirely plausible example, it’s clear that simply having alt-tagged pictures and aria-labels isn’t going to help anyone here. In this case, it’s more important to have an application with low click depth, decent contrast and a logical setup, along with easy one-handed operation.
Does this example seem too far-fetched? Okay, here’s another one: You need to use an app on the train, or as a car passenger. In the latter case, things can get pretty shaky, especially if you’re trying to guide the driver through the streets. After glancing at the surroundings, you need onscreen information that can be quickly grasped for rapid orientation.

Another typical case: your smartphone’s display is shattered by a fall, but the device is still usable. You get accustomed to it and put off the repairs, or simply wait for your provider’s next model. But the screen’s edges are so badly cracked that you can’t use the ever-popular hamburger button in the upper right corner, and the annoyance causes you to leave the website or app, and switch to another one – potentially from the competition.

What these examples make clear is that accessibility is an issue not just for the 7.8 million people in Germany who are certified with at least 50% disability, but also for at least some of the parents in Germany’s 11.6 million2 families with children. Hinzu kommen die fast 20 Millionen Pendler. That’s on top of the nearly 20 million commuters3 found in Germany every day. But that’s not where the story ends either, because in addition to the permanent disabilities resulting from genetic and/or medical conditions, there are also temporary ones like a broken arm, for example.

In any case, it’s clear that the range of potential barriers is quite broad, making the issue of accessibility rather difficult to demarcate at first glance. Fortunately, the internet includes a number of technologies for making websites accessible to almost every individual, regardless of whether we’re talking about physical, visual, hearing or cognitive limitations. Since accessibility is one of the fundamentals of the internet, the relevant needs have been a major focus for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which has put out its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in response. These guidelines help us address accessibility in a more structured way. They also help shape the stipulations imposed on companies and countries, both domestically and internationally.

WCAG

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are international recommendations for barrier-free content and design on the internet.

The guidelines are organized under four principles. Within these four categories, there are various criteria that need to be met. These in turn are graded accorded to level of conformance, depending on how well they facilitate a website’s accessibility. Here, A means that the minimum requirements have been met for making the website usable, AA indicates an ideal level of support, and AAA is largely for websites aimed at specific target audiences.

Accessibility for all

The beginnings of the internet are a bit like the industrial parks and inner cities of the 1970s: no longer good-looking in our eyes, but at least functional according to the standards of the time. Things have changed since then, so that at least some websites are now a lot more attractive. While the well-known :focus pseudo-class may have found its way into the style sheets of Germany, the situation is not the same in regards to contrast and font size. Most notorious is the use of light gray on white. This makes things difficult for seniors, persons with visual impairments, and even wearers of glasses, as well as users on cheaper devices with low-end displays. And if the text is also very small or in an awkward font, most will simply give up. If users are lucky enough not to be dependent on this website, then most will simply walk away – and with a feeling of frustration too. A happy day for the competition!

This is reason enough for us to dispel yet another common prejudice concerning accessibility: rather than being just a way for “marginalized” groups to use websites and apps, it actually helps everyone. Not only has the internet evolved over time, so have its users. While a cumbersome website experience was still routine just twenty years ago, today we expect everything to work much more seamlessly. The focus is now on usability and the personal pleasure that comes from using a well-designed website.

Every one of us can tell a story about the one terrible app that was nonetheless essential for completing a certain task. Here, a crack in the display, and even the clever workaround in response, represents a challenge that often ends in frustration.

Therefore, a barrier-free website is not only important for all those who absolutely need it, but also pays off in terms of improved public image and customer satisfaction. That’s three birds with one stone!

Let’s not kid ourselves: many web projects put low priority on optimizing for accessibility. This may be due to the client’s tight budget constraints, or because the issue is not really on anyone’s agenda. But it might simply be due to the fact that many developers don’t really know how to build a barrier-free website or app.

In short, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

This was also underlined by the US Supreme Court on October 7, 2019, when it decided against Domino’s Pizza. This particular case revolved around the fact that visually impaired customers couldn’t order from Domino’s Pizza through its website or app, since these didn’t support the minimum requirements of screen readers.

Domino’s will have to make improvements in order to remove this discriminatory barrier. This decision also paves the way for future lawsuits against other online providers whose websites/apps can’t be used by those with physical or mental disabilities. While it’s great that the ball is now rolling in the US, what’s the regulatory situation in the EU, and thus in Germany too?
In fact, the EU has already addressed this issue. It’s released guidelines stating that public bodies (e.g. police departments, universities, courts of law, libraries, hospitals) are required to make their websites and apps barrier-free. The basis for this is EN 301 549, an EU standard specifying the AA compliance level of the WCAG as a necessary requirement.

But this doesn’t apply to the private sector, does it? Well, it’s not legally applicable YET, but there are a couple of caveats.

First of all, there’s the ethical viewpoint, which is why we strongly recommend routine fulfillment of the AA level of the WCAG. This is not actually all that hard to achieve, which is what we’ll show over the course of this series. We’ll be giving you a good overview of what you need to know. Furthermore, building websites to this standard will help ensure compliance with future requirements. And this is where we come to the second caveat. We said that it’s not applicable YET… so what does that mean?

In fact, April 2019 saw the passage of a new directive that has to be adopted into the domestic legislation of each EU member state by June 28, 2022, to come into full effect in 2025. This law obliges businesses to make their products barrier-free. In addition to hardware, operating systems and self-service terminals, this also includes online shopping and banking, as well as web-based media services and insurance providers. All of these must be accessible in the future.

The added value of accessibility

So let’s go back to the original question: If I make an accessible website according to the AA compliance level, how does this add value for me?
A barrier-free interface ensures that all users, regardless of individual requirements or disabilities, can fully use your digital products and services.
This not only prevents the marginalization of particular groups, it also expands your customer base. Another great side effect is that search engines will prioritize barrier-free websites – without any need for SEO experts!
In addition, you’ll already be in compliance with EU requirements whose application will soon expand beyond just public bodies.

In short, if we build accessibility into our website/app from early on, then we’ll achieve legal compliance for the future, reach many potential new customers and make a stand for inclusion. Furthermore, we’ll be enhancing user-friendliness and increasing customer satisfaction through optimized navigation, simplified interactivity and a better public image.

In the next installment, we will show you which aspects you should pay attention to in the conception and design of a barrier-free site.