I started with Mike Paciello of The Paciello Group. He was a co-chair for the Access Board’s committee making recommendations for how to update the US “Section 508” accessibility regulations. I had thought he might focus on standards that ensure sites meet basic requirements. However, what he said was that, although good standards are important, “It’s really about the user experience. That means more than just removing barriers. We have to think about the personas for different types of disabilities and how to give them as good an experience as anyone else.”
When I talked to Shawn Henry, the Outreach Coordinator for the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), she agreed. She pointed me to her presentation at UPA 2002 Another -ability: Accessibility Primer for Usability Specialists, in which she said:
“Many times focusing on standards and guidelines puts the focus on the technical aspects of accessibility, and the human interaction aspect is lost. This problem can be avoided by adopting the broader definition of accessibility as a guiding principle. Instead of focusing only on the technical aspects of accessibility, it is important to recognize that usability is also an important aspect of accessibility. Consciously addressing ‘usable accessibility’ helps clarify the difference between what meets minimum accessibility standards and what is usable by people with disabilities.”
Mary Theofanos and Ginny Redish make a similar point in two articles about their work on the user experience of blind and low-vision users. They raised questions about how we can create “experience equity” for people with disabilities by making a site flexible. But, they went further, claiming, “Improving accessibility improves usability for all users.” Clayton Lewis made much the same point at a presentation to the Access Board advisory committee. He pointed out that many features that make Web sites accessible to people with cognitive disabilities also improve the general usability of sites, because such disabilities can amplify mild annoyances into absolute barriers.
Kate Walser, a member of the Access Board committee, provided a good example of how accessibility and usability can work together. “To make complex applications and forms accessible, you need to think through ways to promote keyboard access, label all fields, and make it clear what the ordering and dependencies are. By doing so, now you’ve made it a little easier for power users who use the keyboard to get through the applications and clarified how someone should complete the form.”
If this connection between usability and accessibility is true, I wondered why accessibility sometimes has a bad reputation among designers. Mike’s answer to this question was, “Mindset. Accessibility isn’t the norm for software engineering, so it’s still seen as something extra or hard to do. Instead, we should think of it as a challenge to our own creativity.”
Both Shawn and Kate brought up another problem: If designers don’t understand how people with disabilities use the Web, they can implement accessibility features in ways that make a site less usable and less accessible. Here are some examples of such mistakes:
- in the alt text for images, including information a screen reader already provides—For example, using the alt text “image of a down arrow that links within this Web page” on an anchor link is not only a long set of words to listen to, it duplicates the information the screen reader provides—that it’s an image and a link. The simple alt text “down arrow” would let the screen reader say “Image: down arrow. Internal link.” For people who scan with their ears, this is both more accurate and faster.
- misusing the tabindex attribute—This makes a form even more difficult to navigate by confusing the order in which the Tab key moves between the controls in a form. This often occurs as the result of coding errors, in which some elements are included in the sequence, but others are left out. Another problem that negatively impacts those with visual impairments is a Tab order that makes it hard for someone listening to a Web page to know what section of the page a control or link is in. (For more details, see “Too Much Accessibility—TABINDEX.”)
- overdoing the use of access keys and creating conflicts with keyboard shortcuts—The idea of adding access keys to a site seems helpful, but assistive technology often relies on keyboard shortcuts, which users know well. Conflicts between access keys and the keyboard shortcuts of either the browser or assistive technology create user confusion at the least and unexpected outcomes at the worst.