March 3, 2021

More Than a Checklist

I have been living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome my whole life. For the past 13 years, I have been building visual identities, websites, letterhead and media content. I have been actively working on creating inclusive and accessible experiences for about 5 years, and only in the past year have I become involved with the more formal aspects of accessibility testing and compliance.

It has been a complete process of coming to terms with my accessibility needs and what is out there for people like me and ultimately to understand the need for designing for all. And if it has been such a long and sometimes frustrating process for me, I can only imagine how long and frustrating it must be for non-disabled people.

So when talking to people about accessibility and making their online presence inclusive and accessible, I can understand why their initial approach by many is to think in terms of compliance and passing requirements, of checklists and steps to go through to make sure they are doing right by their audiences.

However, every single time I have that conversation, I am left feeling that instead of sharing a list of actionable points, we should have a bigger conversation and take in the bigger picture of what inclusive design really means. If nothing else, there are three key messages I would love for everyone to take away from talking about accessibility with me.

It’s about respect

If you’ve been reading my posts, you probably know why I think it’s so important to consider all people when we are in the very early stages of building our brand, our products and even our business. It ultimately comes down to who you are allowing in and leaving out, and a matter of respect.

We have the ability and the responsibility to make the things we create have, not only a bare minimum of usability, but to be inclusive too and give our entire audience the same enjoyable experience regardless of their ability. To paraphrase Geri Coady, we have the obligation to give all our stakeholders the respect they deserve.

So before thinking about AA or AAA requirements, contrast rations and WAI ARIA tags, start by asking yourself what accessibility means to you, to your brand and to your organization. Ask yourself what the accessibility needs of every member of your team are and understand how accessibility is not just about disability. Ask yourself, as you go about your day, who isn’t here and why are they not?

Remember that having 2.1 AAA WCAG compliance is not worth much if you are using ableist language in your internal communications, setting up barriers for people to take part fully in the experience of your brand and your business or dismissing the concerns and needs of the people who make up your brand.

No sacrifices needed

Talking with creatives about accessibility very often leads to them preemptively feeling frustrated, thinking how drab and boring accessibility is, and how in order to accommodate the needs of some people they’re going to have to sacrifice the color and beauty of their design. These three thoughts might flip the switch on this line of thinking:

  1. Good design is usable design: If your audience can’t read or understand what you create, you have failed your task, no matter how beautiful it looks.
  2. Accessible and usable design is beautiful: it is not harder to design beautiful, accessible products and interfaces. You just need to know what the expectations are and work within those parameters. We’ve all learned color theory and grids. This is just one more set of best practices.
  3. Accessibility is for everyone: don’t think you are designing to accommodate the needs of “some people” you are designing a robust visual system that every person can access, even if they’re outside on a sunny day, even if their screen at work is terrible, even if they have a visual disability.

All this to say, it’s not either or. You can produce beautiful and well-designed content that suits everyone’s needs, and here are two ways you can do it.

Accessibility is a lifelong project

Accessibility is ongoing, it’s not something you finish. Focus on the intention behind inclusive design, understand that as your brand and technology develop, the accessibility needs of the people who interact with your brand will develop as well.

Accessibility testing, certifications and passing grades are a good indicator of where you are in the mechanics of your accessibility journey. And truth be told, that you are considering the WCAG at all is a prominent sign of your commitment to accessibility, but if you think it’s an item on a to do list, and it’s done, soon your efforts will be obsolete.

We need to get in the habit of considering accessibility in the discovery stage of our products, engaging with a diverse group of people to inform our design choices, testing and re-testing our platforms and communications as part of our regular process and receiving regular feedback from all our stakeholders to inform the next iteration of everything we create.