6th September 2019

My accessibility journey and a change of mindset

Rachael Sutherland

When I was a print designer, there were no guidelines to follow or legislation to adhere to. I knew that small text shouldn't be lower than 8pt and copy needed to be 12pt to be digestible for the reader. I knew that if I used a dark image, then the title that sat over it should be white, and that you need a strong contrast colour for text on any background colour.  All these were passed on to designers by teachers or peers.

Print design meant there were endless possibilities. You could print on different stock, you could emboss, you could use whatever font you liked, and there were millions of leaflet or poster sizes to choose from (or you’d go bespoke, just because you could). The list goes on… until I wanted to apply for a new job. The industry had changed, and from 2012 it appeared that designers also needed to learn to code. 

I made a career change and moved into digital at Deeson. I loved designing for the web and I enjoyed learning to code. Web design is about creating a solution for a client by really understanding their users. However, the web has a lot of constraints: you can only use the fonts that the clients want to pay for, the design has to support the content editors regardless of which images or copy they choose to upload, and it should translate across a variety of device types, which sometimes means sticking closely to a grid. I found myself feeling torn about accessibility and I hated having to consider this extra "constraint”. 

Over time I became something of an enforcer of accessibility at Deeson and, more recently, I was asked to go on an accessibility research journey. Through my research I have started to appreciate not just that accessibility is a must-have on all websites, but why it should be ingrained in our minds throughout our web development process.

When we make sweeping statements like "accessibility is for minorities", we don’t realise that we’re excluding 1 in 5 UK residents. We have to take a tip from the building industry who now won’t build a house without ensuring that the door is wide enough for a wheelchair and electrical sockets high enough to reach.

As designers, we are so constrained by the web when we design that we are terrified of accessibility adding yet another obstacle. But we can't view it that way any longer. Web designers must create a solution for helping all users reach their goal. Achieving accessibility will do this. 

I was asked to embark upon this journey because, for the first time since 2008, WCAG has updated the accessibility guidelines. Along with this update came new legislation which meant that public sector websites now have to pass WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility. When we think about how much the web has changed since 2008, it is madness that this has taken so long.

My journey started by watching Oliver Emberton, 'So You Think You Know Accessibility'. He shared some compelling statistics. There are four main barriers that we need to cater for:

  1. Auditory - This affects 19% of the UK
  2. Cognitive - 10% of the UK are Dyslexic, 3.6 % of UK Boys have ADHD, 7.7% of the UK have English as their 2nd language
  3. Motor - 12% of the UK have tremors or other impairments
  4. Visual - This affects 3.5%

These are not small numbers that can be ignored. Imagine how frustrated these users must be. 

My next piece of research was to go to a UX meet-up, 'Strategies for accessibility and inclusive design' where I got a real kick up the bum! Speaker Rocio Calvo was the first person who changed my way of thinking and helped me sing to the new tune that I introduced this blog with.  She explained that we shouldn't refer to people with impairments as a minority. It is a fundamental human right to be able to do the things that others can achieve. Since 2017 lawsuits on this topic have tripled. Nobody wants to be the company getting negative PR for not helping someone use or purchase something from their website.  

Speaker Josh Marshall worked on the original Gov.uk website, and he ran through a list of do's and do not's. They were incredibly informative and highlighted that most accessibility issues come when we over-complicate the design and build. When you keep it simple with semantics, you have few problems later. 

Designers and developers have terrible experiences when they have to retrofit accessibility after the initial design and build. This is when it becomes a headache. But when we incorporate it into the start of all projects, the process is much simpler. 

So what now? Well, I have some things I’d like to try at Deeson:

  1. Help to change our team's mindset and how we approach accessibility.
  2. Ensure that each project starts with an accessibility spreadsheet, covering the relevant guidelines and disciplines. 
  3. Enlist accessibility champions across the agency, who make sure it is prevalent through all projects. 
  4. Everyone is accountable.

Our target aim must be to become the most accessible agency in the UK. We create and build websites for everyone.

As one of the speakers at the event said: “Accessibility makes good commercial sense, but it is also the right thing to do”.