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Accessibility in Development

Written by Ben Lumley on

As a relatively new developer who manages projects at a relatively new agency, I have alot on my plate. I’m currently learning not only how to produce what is required of me technically, but also the right outcome with the ‘right’ processes across many different devices. This is alongside managing the workloads of developers with varying levels of experience, some far more senior than I am.

This is all great, a real challenge, working with awesome people and on interesting projects with a variety of clients.

I could write a lot more about my core role here at HeX Productions, but in this post, I want to throw in to the mix an aspect of coding / designing sites which is often overlooked, undervalued and / or misunderstood.

That’s right, accessibility. I haven’t been a developer for very long (previously a graphic designer) but I’ve learnt about accessibility as part of my training and I’ve also been to a few talks over the years which have focussed on the subject. So, while I’ve increasingly had accessibility in mind while building sites, it hadn’t previously been fundamental to my projects. I gained a real insight into accessibility practices through working with Shaw Trust’s Accessibility Services for a client project.

Accessibility in Development - Laptop showing website code

HeX took on the ongoing maintenance of a local council website (which had already been designed, built and launched) and part of the project involved a full accessibility audit. Shaw Trust was chosen to carry out the audit. So, to prepare the team for the project, HeX Productions ventured across the border (into Wales) to meet the team there.

As a developer, not to mention human, sitting down with one of the Pan Disability Team is a truly inspiring experience. On beginning the audit of the council’s website, the team are very welcoming, we were invited to sit with each person in the team and they explain how they interact with the website and what they use by way of software to enable/enhance their experience with the web.

The more they reveal their processes and the more I learn about the ins and outs of navigation and their journeys through sites, the more interesting it becomes. Yet inwardly I feel a bit uneasy, I can’t help but feel cumulative guilt about the web projects I have been part of in previous years which didn’t pay much heed to this layer of interaction.

As mentioned earlier in the post, web accessibility can, all too easily, be neglected. This stems from Directors, Project Managers, Web Designers/Developers, Content Creators and clients themselves not appreciating that accessing the web can be more difficult for people with disabilities and yet helps them achieve things they would not otherwise be able to do. For instance, enabling a blind person to pay their bills online, means so much more than it does for a person who can just read what’s on screen or pop down the post office. The ability to find and learn new skills and information without the need for braille or specialised audio descriptions opens the world for the millions of disabled people around the world.

The web houses content which is nowhere else, and it should be accessible for everyone. This is one of the founding principles of the web itself.

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

– Tim Berners-Lee

I find that reading about web accessibility is one thing and witnessing someone overcoming accessibility challenges is another. Watching Alan at Shaw Trust use screen reader software (JAWS) to access and test websites, for example, really brought home the importance of the alt tags on images – without them he wouldn’t have had the same amount of info about a web page as the images themselves simply can’t be seen.

Empathy is hard to instil, especially if it means changing habits or adding an extra amount of complexity to someone’s workload – I’ve been there, when budgets and deadlines are tight – things get dropped. Obviously, inclusiveness is often not what drives business, design or development decisions. But there is a persuasive case for including accessibility in your next project:

  • The Law

It’s a legal requirement for organisations to comply with the Equality Act 2010 and current web accessibility legislation. Find far more information about making your digital presence meet the legal requirements here:

  • Return on your investment

If you don’t aim for the highest levels of digital accessibility you could be alienating 20% of the population. It also improves your web presence, scoring higher in Google rankings and attracting more people to your site.

  • Corporate Social Responsibility

Web accessibility should always be an important part of any company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy.

I hope that current political climate doesn’t erode the growing drive for a more accessible web. After all, it’s up to us, and everyone in the business and web world to make sure we keep improving accessibility for everyone.