Why should we care about accessibility?

Accessibility is such an important topic, but it doesn’t always get as much attention or focus as it should, often because people don’t realise how much of an impact it really has. As such, I wanted to write this post and cover at least a few of the reasons that accessibility is important and why you should care about it.

I originally wrote this with a mind towards the accessibility of digital content (such as documents, websites and software), but hopefully it proves useful to people looking at accessibility in other contexts too.

In no particular order:

Disabilities are more common than you probably realise

According to Jenny Lay-Flurrie (Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer) there are more than 1 billion people worldwide that have some form of disability. 1 billion! That’s more than three times the current population of the entire United States (approximately 328 million at the time of writing). You can’t afford not to care about accessibility; no matter the industry you work in, you almost definitely have customers or users that have some form of disability and you’re doing them a disservice if you don’t take steps to include them.

Changes made to improve accessibility often benefit many different groups

Changes made to accommodate disabilities are often changes that help more than just the targeted group. Here are some examples:

  • Adding subtitles to a video helps:
    • People with hearing difficulties
    • People who don’t speak the language fluently
    • People who want to watch the video quietly or on mute
  • Adding alternative text (alt-text) to images helps:
    • People using a screen-reader
    • People who don’t understand the content of the image
    • Web scrapers to accurately categorise your content and display it on relevant searches

Accessibility changes should be implemented even if the changes don’t benefit additional groups, but this reason is a great way to convince people who argue against the time spent or cost involved with implementing these kinds of changes.

The gains outweigh the effort

If someone is using a screen-reader to browse a website and they come across an image with no alt-text and an unhelpful filename, it may very well be useless to them. The impact might be low if it’s purely decorative, but what if it’s a critical part of the content (such as a graph)? Alt-text should only be a short description of what the picture shows and I’ve found that they usually take about 10-20 seconds to write, so when I hear the argument “it takes too long to implement accessibility” I’m doubtful; are you really unable to spend these few seconds to make a positive change even if it might be the difference between your content being useful to everyone or being useless to large groups of people?

It’s easy to start

Accessibility is not an all or nothing endeavour: minor improvements are still improvements. As such, starting on the journey towards accessibility is as simple as learning about common problem areas and how to fix them.

For example: if you’re a Microsoft Office user, there’s a great set of training videos on accessibility. What about if you build, design or otherwise help create websites? The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) have an excellent primer on easy things that you can check to see whether your website meets some accessibility basics.

For just about any topic, you can search “<topic> accessibility” and you’ll likely find something useful.

There are laws requiring accessibility

In many countries, there are laws requiring accessibility both in the physical world (braille on signs and wheelchair access in public places for example) as well as in digital spaces (such as websites and software). I’m not a lawyer and I couldn’t possibly list laws for every country, but you can find more information by searching for “<country/state> accessibility laws” and going from there.

It’s the right thing to do

I can’t imagine that this is a controversial point, but it’s worth making: people with disabilities deserve the same access to information, content and services as everyone else. Making things accessible shouldn’t be the exception, it should be the default. It shouldn’t be looked at as a bonus feature, but part of the minimum requirements.

Conclusion

Content that lacks accessibility is almost always a result of apathy or a lack of understanding, so it’s important that accessibility as a topic is discussed openly and widely. When more people realise that small changes can have a huge impact, we’ll hopefully start to see accessible content become the default.

Start your accessibility journey today. Learn more about why it’s important. See what you can do to make the content you produce more accessible. Talk to your friends and colleagues about it. Take that first step!

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