30 Under 30 2024

Embracing inclusivity: The role of website accessibility in the digital age

Website accessibility has emerged as a fundamental aspect of online interaction. This focus on inclusivity enhances user experience and reflects an evolving understanding of technology's role in society

Published: Jan 24, 2024 11:17:56 AM IST
Updated: Jan 24, 2024 11:24:35 AM IST

Embracing inclusivity: The role of website accessibility in the digital ageWebsite accessibility underscores a commitment to ensuring that digital platforms are accessible and user-friendly for individuals with a wide range of abilities. Image: Shutterstock

Website accessibility has emerged as a fundamental aspect of online interaction. It underscores a commitment to ensuring that digital platforms are accessible and user-friendly for individuals with a wide range of abilities. This focus on inclusivity enhances user experience and reflects an evolving understanding of technology's role in society.

What is website accessibility, how is it achieved across all media types, and how does removing barriers to content benefit everyone? We spoke with Kathy Marks, the digital accessibility specialist and IT accessibility coordinator at ASU's Enterprise Technology, to learn all about it.
 

Understanding the importance of website accessibility

Just about every aspect of life now has a digital, online component. Marks explains, “These days, we can shop online, attend class, work, meet friends, see the doctor … practically live online. For people with disabilities, these advances in technology, coupled with the richness of online life, could be revolutionary.” For this revolution to be beneficial to all, however, websites must be fully accessible.  

Website accessibility is a crucial aspect of modern digital interaction. At its best, it ensures that diverse social and economic groups, especially those with disabilities, have equal access to online resources. This accessibility is increasingly integral to daily life, providing opportunities for education, employment, and social engagement. Fortunately, technological advancements have simplified creating and accessing digital content. Marks pointed out that these advancements are only beneficial if we are all committed to creating digital content that is accessible.

Technological evolution and accessibility features

Over the past 20 years, there have been tremendous advances in technology for both accessing and creating digital content. This progression of technology has played a pivotal role in advancing more comprehensive digital accessibility. Innovations, such as screen readers, speech recognition, touch screens, and eye tracking have expanded the possibilities for individuals with disabilities to engage with digital content.  

By incorporating multi-sensory input and output methods, content creators have widened the accessibility of their content as well as their audiences. Marks explains, “Digital content creators who provide for multi-sensory input and output also increase the number of people who can participate with their content. This evolution is also reflective of a deeper understanding of disability, recognizing it as a result of societal barriers rather than individual impairments.  

Marks elaborates, “If we post a video without captions or a transcript, people who are deaf or hard of hearing will be ‘disabled,’ simply meaning they will not be able to access that content.” This underscores the importance of adapting the digital environment to be inclusive, ensuring that accessibility is not an afterthought but a fundamental aspect of content creation.

Key elements of an accessible website

Creating an accessible website hinges on addressing common barriers with straightforward solutions. Marks suggests that people can make a huge difference with relatively simple and quick changes. A few examples of this include adding alternative descriptions to images for people with visual challenges, adding captions to videos for those with hearing challenges, and organizing content with hierarchical headings similar to an outline for those with cognitive impairments or using screen readers.

Marks explains that making content accessible actually benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities. “When you make content more easily accessible, it benefits everyone. People with slow internet connections can read descriptions if the images don’t load. Many people that are not hard of hearing use captions and organizing content with headings makes large, daunting blocks of text easier to read.”

Overcoming website accessibility challenges

Making a website accessible to users with varying levels of capabilities can be challenging, but as Marks indicates, it's about setting realistic expectations. “It’s only challenging if people expect too much of themselves. Accessibility is a spectrum so aim to improve the accessibility of your content or website little by little.” Utilizing a systematic approach like this paves a realistic path toward accessibility.

Marks suggests that an effective first step is to start with the content you most often create and learn how to make it more accessible. From there, tackle simple tasks like adding alternative text to images and progressively move on to more complex work, such as rewriting link text for better accessibility. Over time, these cumulative efforts lead to a website that is increasingly inclusive.

Also read: Embracing inclusivity by humanising AI decisions

Balancing aesthetics with accessibility

Achieving a balance between the aesthetic elements and accessibility is not as daunting as it might seem. According to Marks, “There are very few things designers and developers can’t do on a website and have it still be accessible.” She stresses that designing with accessibility in mind benefits everyone. For example, making text dark enough that it is easy to see makes websites easier for everyone to use.  

While balancing aesthetics and accessibility on a website is achievable, it does take training. Marks emphasizes this, noting that developers with the right training can make web pages look any way a designer wants while still being accessible. Having a commitment to IT accessibility and the training to back it up is key to widespread digital accessibility.

Prioritizing accessibility in web development

It is more efficient and cost effective to prioritize accessibility from the earliest states of web development. Marks illustrates this with a vivid analogy: “Imagine you forgot to put an elevator in a building. It would be much more time-consuming, expensive, and disruptive to add an elevator to the lobby of an existing building.” This comparison effectively highlights how retrofitting accessibility into an existing website can be more complex and costly than integrating it from the beginning.

This approach also helps ensure that digital products are more future-proof, able to operate on a broad range of devices, and require less maintenance. And, as Marks adds, it’s not harder to design an accessible site or write accessible code; rather, it just takes training. This approach to web development ensures a better return on investment by making the content accessible to a wider audience from day one.

The impact of evolving standards on accessibility

Marks explains that the foundational standards and guidelines of accessibility have remained largely consistent since first enacted. Since 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act has been protecting the rights of people with disabilities, including the right to equal access to content. And the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which set forth standards that public entities must comply with, have been around since 1999.

What has changed, however, is technology and the context within which these standards are applied. The advancement in technology and the increase in online activities, especially during the pandemic, have highlighted the internet's role as an essential virtual space. Marks observes that this shift underscores the need for web spaces to be as accessible as physical ones.  

It also highlighted a need for greater compliance and enforcement of the standards and laws already in place. Marks shares that this is already underway after the United States Department of Justice proposed making regulations of the existing standards for website accessibility in August 2023.

Making multimedia content more accessible

With the growing popularity of videos and podcasts, multimedia content has become increasingly prevalent. Platforms such as YouTube and TikTok, which prioritize video content, along with news stories that incorporate video for more engaging storytelling, are testament to this trend. This showcases how much multimedia content is out there for audiences to consume. It also puts a spotlight on the importance of accessibility.  

Captions are a simple solution to multimedia accessibility. Mark explains that technology like AI-generated auto-captions and similar tools make short work of providing captions for content. They are highly accurate, typically requiring only light editing. The upside remains significant, because so many people use and benefit from captions.  

Mark expands on this point, saying, “Those that are deaf or hard of hearing rely on captions, as do people with earaches, headaches, tinnitus, and auditory processing disorders. People use captions to aid focus and improve retention, as do non-native speakers, those in noisy environments or even those holding a sleepy baby or watching at late night all benefit from captions.”

Website accessibility is more than a feature; it's a fundamental right in the digital world we inhabit. From Marks' insights, it's clear that accessible design not only supports those with disabilities but enhances the experience for all users. By embracing the principles of inclusivity and adaptability, we can make sure that the internet remains a diverse and accessible space. As technology continues to evolve, so too must our commitment to creating digital environments where everyone can thrive.

Visit the ASU IT Accessibility page to learn more about digital accessibility, including information on how to test your digital content for compliance.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from Knowledge Network, the online thought leadership platform for Thunderbird School of Global Management https://thunderbird.asu.edu/knowledge-network/]

Post Your Comment
Required
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated