Spring is all around here in Texas, with loads of beautiful blooms like these poppies—a flower often associated with war casualties in the West. It seems like a poignant symbol right now as we assess the loss of lives and survivor health issues of those affected by COVID-19, including millions of people with disabilities.
Beyond trying to avoid physical sickness, disabled people have faced enormous challenges in getting tested, treated and vaccinated. The US healthcare system and government social safety net programs are enormously difficult to navigate with numerous barriers for people trying to get information digitally. A few examples:
Coronavirus maps and data in unstructured formats
COVID-19 websites that don’t work with screen readers
Drive-through only testing and vaccination sites
Critical information missing text equivalents, like video captions
Vaccine-finder websites with poor mobile support
I spend dozens of hours every week evaluating digital experiences as an accessibility engineer. It’s my job to find weaknesses in the ways information is presented to people. Most of the time, I’m documenting code issues that by themselves are small barriers but combined across a website cause enough inaccessibility that people can’t do what they want to do. I wonder how many disabled people already struggling in a culture that sees us as lesser couldn’t get a test or can’t schedule a vaccination because the people who built these websites didn’t even consider our needs.
I think about my needs as an autistic person with ADHD and bipolar disorder. I’m easily distracted and easily nauseated by moving content. The media query prefers-reduced-motion was made for me. I want to rid the web of every auto-advancing carousel I see. But despite a lot of evidence carousels are ineffective, they are still ubiquitous.
Every day sees more research about why digital accessibility is necessary, and it comes with endless anecdotes from people using assistive technology about how the web and mobile landscapes are still wildly unusable. This problem has been framed as an empathy problem, a coding knowledge problem, even as just a cost problem. So, how do we get designers and developers to care about the needs of the disabled?
It’s clear that accessibility as a concept is not considered a core tenet of good design and development by the establishment. Focus remains largely on the normative desktop browser experience that centers sighted, hearing users without cognitive or mobility impairments. It’s hard to imagine that there is much more we can do in this fight for visibility and inclusion.
I hope this GAAD, you believe you have a right to access information and will demand that right be honored. The time has passed where anyone creating for the web can plausibly deny knowing about accessibility. Whether it’s pointing out missing captions and alt text on social media or contacting customer service about issues a site has supporting assistive technology, each of our small voices can combine into a collective clamor for inclusive design.
This post follows my path to discovering a passion for accessibility and landing my dream job as an accessibility engineer.
Starting out on rocky flats (2000-2007)
It took me several years to become a decent web developer. Self-taught, I learned HTML through view source on webpages; I used code snippets from online tutorials; I built nested tables for layout. As the browser wars raged, most people didn’t care if the code was good so long as the website looked pixel perfect.
During university, my plan was to be a high school English teacher. My last semester, I realized I enjoyed coding more and would make a better wage building websites. Two months after graduating, I started my first full-time tech job. I got hired because I was the only candidate with any web experience. Acting as designer, developer and content author, I built the first website for a small manufacturing company in late 2000 as the dot com bubble burst.
After a couple of months, life took me to California where I got my second web developer role, this time for a manufacturing software company. I distinctly remember coming in to interview and having to do a coding test to prove I knew HTML. In this job, I learned how to work on multiple projects and maintain several different websites. I helped them with their first website redesign, as well as create a separate website for user conferences.
I spent most days fielding requests to update website content. Towards the end of my six years at QAD, I learned about portal and content management systems (CMS) as we went through a second redesign. This helped me get my next web developer job, which was at the CMS company, back in Texas.
Hiking through the forest (2007-2012)
It was 2007 and I needed to know CSS for the task of redesigning a website from a table-based layout and static HTML into a CSS-based layout with content in a CMS. I picked up a book that changed my life.
I learned from a co-worker that the University of Texas at Austin had a program with an “information architecture” (IA) track and in 2009 I started graduate work on a Master of Science in Information Studies degree (a.k.a. library school). The curriculum wasn’t as robust as I hoped, but it gave me a flexible framework to explore my interests around usability and accessibility. After 3.5 years of working full-time and going to school part-time, I graduated in 2012 with an endorsement of specialization in user experience design (UXD). This included two courses on making systems work for people with disabilities.
It was around this time that mobile browsing and responsive design were getting real attention from the development world, along with HTML5 and CSS3. I incorporated these technologies in my projects but my career desires were shifting left from developing to designing. I wanted to do user experience design work.
Switchback up the north face (2012-2020)
I tried for years to improve our user experience process at work. I advocated for creating prototypes and using those for low-fidelity usability testing of all our application changes. There was interest but no commitment. While I was able create more functional design documentation over time, we had only one project that included personas, wireframes and testing with end users.
I learned as much about accessibility as I could through webinars, online courses, Twitter and conferences. I’m very lucky to live in Austin where the AccessU accessibility conference is held each spring. In 2018, I learned about the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) and certifications available. In 2019, I passed the exam for the Web Accessibility Specialist credential after years of checking websites and fixing accessibility issues.
Integrating accessibility at work was slow going with many struggles. In 2020, I started looking for a job with an accessibility-focus, somewhere that accessibility is valued and non-negotiable. Just after I took the next IAAP exam, Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies, COVID-19 interrupted everything. I decided to halt my job search until 2021 to see whether OpenText would come into compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) by 1 January.
Reaching the summit
The new year came without any firm support for an accessibility program in IT, however Marketing pledged not to publish any new content that does not conform to WCAG 2.0 level AA, which I consider a huge win.
On the side, I picked up an accessibility contracting job and had my first exposure to a robust accessibility testing methodology. Another piece fell into place and I learned so much in six weeks about the process of testing as well as how to test native mobile applications. Soon after, I started interviewing for an accessibility engineer position at another accessibility firm.
I wanted a remote-only position after all this time working from home during the pandemic. I wanted a raise. I wanted to find meaningful work. And I got the job! I’m very excited to start this next chapter of my accessibility journey.
In my exit interview, I let my former employer know that I didn’t feel right working on websites that excluded disabled people. It felt good taking a stand and finding work that will improve information access for everyone.
I decided to create something similar but with CSS. And with a message about semantic HTML. I’ve recreated the experience below.
Whew! That’s better. So guess what?
The web is inherently accessible
Your weekly reminder that the web is accessible by default and it’s our design decisions that stop it being accessible #a11y
Why did you have to disable CSS to view this website? No reason other than a design choice that excludes sighted people.
Did you know? This is how many visitors “view” webpages already:
This webpage is fully accessible to people with screen readers and Braille displays. But many websites are not due to poor design choices that exclude some people.
What is web accessibility?
When a page is accessible, it was developed with the intention of working for as many people with disabilities as possible. A good place to start learning is the W3C’s Introduction to Web Accessibility. Find out the different ways people with disabilities interact with the web.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
WCAG is a set of success criteria for determining if a page is accessible, led by four guiding principles:
Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable.
Understandable: Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable.
Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.
These contain guidelines and a hierarchy of success criteria from Level A to Level AAA. Many accessibility laws, and current best practice, point to WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliance. There are 50 discrete success criteria to evaluate, though many are not applicable to all pages. For example, if a page doesn’t contain video, you don’t have to evaluate against success criteria for captions or audio descriptions.
Did you know? The WCAG guidelines were first published in 1999. Web accessibility is not a new concept but a lot of people are learning about it only now.
So what’s the point? The point is to develop accessible pages from the bottom up, starting with semantic HTML. A whole lot of developers think they know HTML but are actually pretty sloppy about it. Many don’t think it matters if they use a link or a button, but it does. Every semantic mistake introduces accessibility issues into your code. If you’ve never really “learned” HTML, check out this beginner’s guide to writing good HTML.
By far, CSS color contrast issues are the most frequent accessibility issues I see, but the HTML ones are problematic too. Outlined below are the top HTML-related accessibility issues I encounter.
If you visually scan this page, you can quickly see how it is broken up into sections. That’s due to using headings or the h1-h6 elements. It’s important that every page have at least one h1 so people and search engines know what the topic of the page is. From there, cascade down to h2, h3, and so on.
Did you know? People using screen readers can navigate by headings in much the same way that sighted people can visually scan the page for items of importance.
Every input needs a label. It’s really that simple. And best practice is to make that label visible. This helps people remember what information they’ve entered. Programmatically link each pair using the for attribute on the label matching the id attribute on the input.
This enables a couple things:
People can now click or tap on the label to give focus to the input. This is especially useful for checkboxes and radio buttons that often have small hit areas.
People using screen readers will now hear the label announced when the input is in focus.
<input type="checkbox" id="like-cats">Please confirm that you like cats</label>
Let people know when a field is required by adding the required attribute to inputs. Many modern browsers do cursory form field validation.
Buttons and links seem very similar to some developers but they have very different semantic uses. Buttons are used for controls on a page, such as a form submit or toggle, while links are used for navigation, literally for linking to another page. If you use them interchangeably, people can get confused about what a button or link is going to do when activated.
Some people try to make their own custom buttons instead of using the <button> element, which is already accessible:
<button> is keyboard focusable
<button> is activated with enter and space keys
There are many legitimate uses for tables on the web but they are often coded incorrectly. Much as an input needs its label, a table data cell needs its table header. This allows the applicable table header to be read by a screen reader before the table data cell contents. Additionally, each table needs a <caption> that provides a description of the table contents to people using assistive technologies
About My Cats
black and white
The one thing about accessibility most people know is that images need alt text. This may seem straightforward but let’s look at three examples.
1) Alt text matters
Semantically speaking, every image needs an alt="" attribute. This alone will pass an automated accessibility checker. If an image is purely decorative, you can even leave the alt value empty. But if an image provides context to the content, the alt text must accurately describe the content of the image for people who cannot see it. The alt text for the image below is two cats on an easy chair under a blanket.
SVG doesn’t support the alt attribute. Instead, add a <title>element inside the <svg> element with the alternative text description.
Add the role="img" attribute to the <svg> element to tell assistive technologies that it’s an image.
Add the aria-labelledby attribute to the <svg> element to name the image for assistive technology.
Any time you display complicated information, provide a robust description of the key points of the map or chart. All people will benefit from this for reference. No matter how you mark this up— using <figcaption> or just a <p> element—give that description a unique ID.
Add the aria-describedby="unique-id" attribute to the <img> element. This programmatically connects the image with the description for assistive technologies.
Remember to include the alt attribute with a short explanation of the image. Alt text for the image below is a cat sitting on a bed that is divided up into areas.