Global Accessibility Awareness Day was on May 20th this year (2021). The event was set up 10 years ago to highlight the continued inequalities experienced by disabled people worldwide.

The organisers have shared some worrying statistics showing that from 1 million websites, WebAim found 98.1% of home pages had at least one Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Failure. Even with WCAG regulations or similar in the UK, Europe, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan, we are still seeing plenty of evidence of services lacking accessibility.

Home pages and websites are important but there is a much wider system of interactions, design styles and decisions that also deserves our attention. These can be barriers to someone accessing the internet in the first place.

To make websites accessible, we must first look at the human journey and how we make the whole of it easy for everyone. This is where Service Design and Systems Thinking are important.

Think of your device, service, website, product, as one step in a much longer, complex journey.

For example, right now, I’m writing this article on a train and yes, I’m wearing a face mask and am socially distanced. You might think that the accessibility requirements would be using the keyboard for navigating my site or writing using voice commands?

That’s a good start! But what about the phone application needed to access my e-ticket and what if the e-display reservations in the carriages didn’t match up? What if the aisle wasn’t wide enough for me to use if I had a crutch, wheelchair or wheely bag? You start to see how interlinked these ‘services’ are as part of a much bigger ‘system’.

Train chair next to window with a view of another train moving.

Credit: Alex Cleator

We could go all the way back to my home, bus times, curbs, design of the luggage, steps or lift to my door, digital or phone alarm clock, and so on. If we accept anything less than accessible, we put unnecessary barriers in that journey and remove the independence that everyone needs and deserves.

Often, to make sure digital products and websites are accessible, they are tested with ‘Assistive technology (AT)’. If someone can use Assistive Technology with a digital service, it’s deemed to be accessible. This is technically true.

However, that only applies to those who choose to use assistive technology in the first place. There is an assumption that people with impairments will use additional technologies to use services but it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

We should be thinking about how we design inclusively and not rely on someone having access to any additional software or technology.

Supporting this is the Social Model of Disability. This proposes that what makes someone disabled is not their medical condition, but the attitudes and structures of society which have been designed without considering their needs. It asks us to build a more inclusive world and remove barriers for all as a matter of course. In order to do this, we must make our initial designs accessible to all in the first place.

When it comes to you and what you can do, invest in the time, in the products and services that are already designed accessibly. Real change and improvement will need to come from us all deciding that accessibility and usability for all is a minimum requirement.

For example, asking for any additional requirements just in the same way we’d ask for preferred pronouns will help. Another example would be to provide engagement and information in multiple ways as a standard, not an extra. One approach that can ensure all products and services are accessible is to only procure services and digital tools that are fully accessible to support those services. That will mean you know everything is being built and designed with underlining accessibility.

As “1 Billion People Worldwide Have Disabilities”, and up to 60% of us will acquire an impairment in our lifetime, this is not something we can ignore. Designing differently will require creativity and disrupting the norm because the norm still isn’t accessible.

When you understand the wider impact, the bigger picture, we can start to see a more inclusive world.

Person looking over a city street from a bridge.

Credit: Alex Cleator

written by Alex Cleator. Also available on Medium