More than one in twenty people—an estimated 430 million people—experience disabling hearing loss according to the World Health Organization’s 2021 fact sheet on deafness and hearing loss. Some are functionally deaf, having little to no hearing. Others are culturally Deaf with a preference for communicating with sign language. A lack of public awareness and familiarity with d/Deaf people’s needs is still common, which can lead to oversights in the designs of smart devices, web content, mobile apps and communication styles. Let’s look at five ways that we can improve online experiences for d/Deaf users.
The third Thursday in May is Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD).
The purpose of GAAD is to get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion, and the more than one billion people with disabilities/impairments.GAAD homepage
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.
Designing with Web Standards
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.
In 2015, I shifted my focus again, this time to accessibility. I performed the first accessibility audit of OpenText’s corporate website using the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative Easy Checks – A First Review of Web Accessibility. In retrospect, this was a transformative act because it started the accessibility conversation with Marketing and IT at OpenText. I also started my blog which let me explore usability and accessibility issues in the wild, improving my auditing skills.
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.