Factors affecting ID accessible web design
Awareness: most participants were not initially aware of intellectual disability, or that people with ID exist as part of their user group. They weren’t aware of the assistive technologies that people with ID use, or of their accessibility needs.
Understanding: of these issues and of the guidelines themselves.
Decision makers: line managers, clients, content producers or others may not share our participants commitment to ID accessibility.
Nature of their projects: some participants feel that the back-end coding that they do cannot affect ID accessibility in the same way as front-end design. Others view their sites as not targeted at an ID audience.
Absence of advice about ID accessibility: as a result of the lack of specific guidelines and recommendations relating to ID, some participants claim they do not know how far to go.
Absence of ID from the WCAG guidelines: and subsequently from legislation relating to web accessibility, means there are no legal repercussions from excluding this group, and no incentive, then, to include.
ID-specific accessibility is not discussed by web design gurus: from whom many web professionals get their accessibility knowledge and inspiration.
The place of accessibility in the work of web designers
Accessibility has become an integral component of the work of many web professionals. Ten years ago, the idea that web designers and developers might build their sites so that they could be accessed by disabled communities was new.
It was common then for people working in the field to feel that designing accessibly limited creativity. That historical moment now seems to have passed.
Accessibility no longer hinders creativity instead, creativity is mobilised as a means to come up with accessible design solutions:
“I love limitations. […] If I’m faced with a blank canvas I’m terrified. It must be 700 pixels, accessible, work for blind people, accessibility can be thought of as a limitation, but not for me. It helps me. To stay sane in a world where anything is possible.”
This is as a result of
the evangelizing by gurus about mainstream accessibility
changes to web design tools so that they now create accessible websites more easily
the professionalisation of web design, its formation as a recognisable occupation, in which accessibility plays a central role
the work of the Web Accessibility Initiative
the passionate commitment to the web that many web designers demonstrate:
“I’m interested in enabling access to content to the broadest possible audience. It is why I love the web, anyone can access, publish and have an opinion on content. It is really important to me that we make content accessible to all.”
The WCAG Guidelines
Some of our participants acknowledged the value of the WAI WCAG guidelines, some acknowledged their limitations, and some did both.
One participant said:
“Because of their nature as standards, the language used and because it is so comprehensive, it can be off-putting. However, if you have a specific query, they can be very helpful, and there are intermediaries which will link to them with explanations. So I think they are useful as a resource, but they can be off-putting because of the language and way they are structured.”
Most participants were critical of the guidelines, highlighting the complexity of the language used as a barrier to understanding and implementing them. Instead, some participants proposed more user-friendly, graphical, or case study based documents.
The guidelines are limited in relation to intellectual disability. They don't extend beyond mild ID. But the baseline criteria can be exceeded.
Any ID additions to the WCAG guidelines in the form of an application note, or appendix, would be unlikely to share the legal status of the guidelines themselves, and therefore probably exclude ID users from legislation.
Web accessibility and intellectual disability
ID accessibility is difficult to achieve. ID users are seen by some to be an extreme user group (as disabled web users have been characterised) who are just too extreme. Therefore, some of our participants, after six months back at work, felt that they did not have the power to affect change on the behalf of ID web users.
Some ID accessibility measures are seemingly more intrusive for non-disabled users than other more behind the scenes measures for sensory or physical impairments. Large font, simple language and deep rather than wide structures impact on the usability of a website more than marking up code so it can be read by a screen reader does.
Conversely, good mark-up for sensory/physical disability will often result in, for example, good search engine optimisation, and so accessibility for people with sensory or physical disabilities has other pay-offs beyond accessibility. But not always.
One of our participants said making a site more accessible to ID users will make it easier for everyone. Some simplifying measures benefit everyone.
The accessibility requirements of people with ID are complex; because it is difficult to generalise about intellectual disability, it is difficult to produce guidelines for ID accessibility.
Guidelines per se, not the WCAG guidelines in particular, can be problematic. Guidelines in general are not enough, with their checklist, tick-box orientation. Supplemental approaches such as those that we adopted on INMD, where designers and developers seek guidance directly from users, are also necessary.
Guidelines are a valuable starting point, but alone are not enough when considering accessibility for the ID user group. Substantive barriers for people with intellectual disabilities predominantly fall within areas which within WCAG are considered as supplementary and advisory techniques.
Detailed, specific guidance is needed about how to exceed WCAG success criteria.
How to encourage ID accessible design?
An online resource: a comprehensive, usable, multi-modal resource about ID accessibility is needed. Such a resource should provide tips, how-to videos, clear guidelines and examples of both good practice and user interaction. This site tries to address that need.
Engaging with intellectually disabled web users: our participants attached great value to engaging with ID web users. Most participants cited user testing as the most beneficial aspect of our workshops. User testing put a human face on the issues we had previously discussed with participants.
“Meeting the user group, seeing their reactions (some as expected, some unexpected), understanding how to prompt for input, getting honest and sincere feedback”, were aspects of the process participants found valuable.
“There is nothing more effective than getting actual users to test your products.”
Engaging with a diverse range of stakeholders: it is not simply the case that web designers, through their choices and actions regarding accessibility, are empowered to enable or disable web users. Researchers like us need to engage with a more diverse range of stakeholders, line managers, copy writers, policy makers, in order to make ID accessibility happen.
Further research with people with severe/profound ID is needed, because they are more likely to be left out of the web.