“Show me you can be consistent, then we can talk about being heroic.”
This quote comes from the best-selling author, speaker, and physical therapist, Dr. Kelly Starret. Initially it may seem puzzling to begin an article about digital accessibility with a quote about human movement. Still, we would argue that this smart principle is universal across human endeavors. The parallels don’t stop there either: consider how the very meaning of accessibility has shifted even over the relatively short lifespan of the 30-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). When first enacted, the legislature was mainly worded to protect the rights of all Americans to access physical public and work spaces. In the ensuing years, we have all radically shifted the way we share information, and the ADA has evolved appropriately to include sections protecting those same people’s rights to access information itself. This evolution means that as organizations, we all need to build consistency in how we approach delivering accessibility in all initiatives that we undertake, from facilities to communication. Once we have made ourselves consistently accessible, we have built the foundation for our expansion.
What Is Accessibility?
The Wikipedia community defines accessibility as “…the design of products, devices, services, or environments so as to be usable by people with disabilities.” Elsewhere on the Internet, the folks at Merriam-Webster use similar language, but serve it alongside this variation that we think captures the truth of accessibility: “capable of being used or seen.” This simple phrase captures the essence of inclusiveness that we believe to our core serve as a strong starting point for accessibility initiatives.
As with the ADA above, we can think of digital accessibility as the digital assets of all types that are “capable of being used or seen” by everyone. Think of the ADA and its effect on physical spaces; ramps and various lifts were added to buildings so people in wheelchairs could avoid the use of stairs and use the facility. Pool lifts gave those same people access to public pools. The lights at crosswalks began to emit auditory cues so that people who were visually impaired could safely and autonomously cross the road.
The advent of digital means as the prime method by which humans communicate brought with it the need to take this same accessibility perspective as we’re building digital “spaces,” be they books, websites, email, presentation decks, or even advertising. Digital communication has gifted companies with enormous leverage, agility, and scale, but in our haste to enjoy these benefits, it’s important that we remember to bring everyone along with us. This is precisely what makes accessibility a first-principles matter for companies who have any type of digital presence or communication: “Why do we do what we do and how can we best reach people?”
The Importance of Web Accessibility in Today’s World
Right now, much of the world is in some stage of mass lockdown. We as a society have agreed that to protect our survival, we are going to minimize the spread of the COVID-19 virus by reducing the opportunities we provide for it to spread. Many people have not left their homes in days or even weeks. During this challenging time, the Internet has proven itself to be a valuable tool not just in how we communicate, but in how many of us cope with increased levels of isolation. We use it to get information to help protect ourselves and our families, but our use is stretched far beyond that. People are using Internet sites and web-based applications to connect 1:1 and one to many. To entertain and to be entertained. Some of us are even fortunate enough to be able to operate our businesses almost as usual, thanks to the Internet. The fact remains, however, that in the United States alone, 1-in-4 adults live with some form of disability that may prohibit them from engaging in this digitized society to the fullest extent possible.
As organizations, this all amounts to a call to action. It’s a way to stand with our teams, customers, and communities. It’s not time for us to sell, it’s time for us to care, and one way to express that we care is to do the work and to make sure that everything we build, share, or email is “capable of being used or seen” by everyone we hope to build connections with. A fantastic starting point is web accessibility.
Has your organization planned to build accessibility into all aspects of all your work, and do it consistently? Do this, and then you can start planning how to be heroic, because then you can start being heroic to everyone.