Framing accessibility in broader terms February 13, 2022 on Drew DeVault's blog

Upon hearing the term “accessibility”, many developers call to mind the HTML ARIA attributes and little else. Those who have done some real accessibility work may think of the WCAG guidelines. Some FOSS developers1 may think of AT-SPI. The typical user of these accessibility features is, in the minds of many naive developers, a blind person. Perhaps for those who have worked with WCAG, a slightly more sophisticated understanding of the audience for accessibility tools may include users with a greater variety of vision-related problems, motor impairments, or similar needs.

Many developers2 frame accessibility in these terms, as a list of boxes to tick off, or specific industry tools which, when used, magically create an accessible product. This is not the case. In truth, a much broader understanding of accessibility is required to create genuinely accessible software, and because that understanding often raises uncomfortable questions about our basic design assumptions, the industry’s relationship with accessibility borders on willful ignorance.

The typical developer’s relationship with accessibility, if they have one at all, is mainly concerned with making web pages work with screen readers. Even considering this very narrow goal, most developers have an even narrower understanding of the problem, and end up doing a piss-poor job of it. In essence, the process of doing accessibility badly involves making a web page for a sighted user, then using ARIA tags to hide cosmetic elements, adding alt tags, and making other surface-level improvements for users of screen readers. If they’re serious, they may reach for the WCAG guidelines and do things like considering contrast, font choices, and animations as well, but all framed within the context of adding accessibility band-aids onto a UI designed for sighted use.

A key insight here is that concerns like font choice and contrast involve making changes which are apparent to “typical” users as well, but we’ll expand on that in a moment. Instead of designing for people like you and then patching it up until it’s semi-functional for people who are not like you, a wise developer places themselves into the shoes of the person they’re designing for and builds something which speaks their design language. For visually impaired users, this might mean laying out information in a more logical sense than in a spatial sense.

Importantly, accessibility also means understanding that there are many other kinds of users who have accessibility needs.

For instance, consider someone who cannot afford a computer as nice as the one your developers are using. When your Electron crapware app eats up 8G of RAM, it may be fine on your 32G developer workstation, but not so much for someone who cannot afford anything other than a used $50 laptop from eBay. Waking up the user’s phone every 15 minutes to check in with your servers isn’t very nice for someone using a 5-year-old phone with a dying battery. Your huge JavaScript bundle, unoptimized images, and always-on network requirements are not accessible to users who are on low-bandwidth mobile connections or have a data cap — you’re essentially charging poorer users a tax to use your website.

Localization is another kind of accessibility, and it requires more effort than running your strings through gettext. Users in different locales speak not only different natural languages, but different design languages. Users of right-to-left languages like Arabic don’t just reverse their strings but also the entire layout of the page. Chinese and Japanese users are more familiar with denser UIs than the typical Western user. And subtitles and transcripts are important for Deaf users, but also useful for users who are consuming your content in a second language.

Intuitiveness is another important detail. Not everyone understands what your icons mean, for a start. They may not have the motor skill to hold their mouse over the button and read the tool-tip, either, and might not know that they can do that in the first place! Reliance on unfamiliar design language in general is a kind of inaccessible design. Remember the “save” icon? 💾 Flashing banner ads are also inaccessible for users with ADHD, and if we’re being honest, for everyone else, too. Software which is not responsive on many kinds of devices (touch, mouse and keyboard, different screen sizes, aspect ratios, orientations) is not accessible. Software which requires the latest and greatest technologies to use (such as a modern web browser) is also not accessible.

Adequate answers to these problems are often expensive and uncomfortable, so no one wants to think about them. Social-media-esque designs which are deliberately addictive are not accessible, and also not moral. The mountain of gross abstractions on which much software is built is cheap, but causes it to suck up all the user’s resources (RAM, CPU, battery, etc) on 10-year-old devices.3 And ads are inaccessible by design, but good luck explaining that to your boss.

It is a fool’s errand to aim for perfect accessibility for all users, but we need to understand that our design choices are excluding people from using our tools. We need to design our software with accessibility in mind from the ground up, and with a broad understanding of accessibility that acknowledges that simple, intuitive software is the foundation of accessibility which works for everyone, including you and me — and not retroactively adding half-assed tools to fundamentally unusable software. I want UI designers to be thinking in these terms, and less in terms of aesthetic properties, profitable designs, and dark patterns. Design with empathy first.

As someone who works exclusively in free software, I have to acknowledge the fact that free software is pretty pathetic when it comes to accessibility. In our case, this does not generally come from the perverse incentives that cause businesses to cut costs or even deliberately undermine accessibility for profit,4 but instead comes from laziness (or, more charitably, lack of free time and enthusiasm), and generally from free software’s struggles to build software for people who are not like its authors. I think that we can change this. We do not have the profit motive, and we can choose to take pride in making better software for everyone. Let’s do better.

  1. Vanishingly few. ↩︎

  2. Including me, once upon a time. ↩︎

  3. Not to mention that the model of wasteful consumerism required to keep up with modern software is destroying the planet. ↩︎

  4. Though I am saddened to admit that many free software developers, after years of exposure to these dark patterns, will often unwittingly re-implement them in free software themselves without understanding their sinister nature. ↩︎

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