The importance of accessibility in building digital platforms

Twitter has recently updated its Alt Text feature – if users post a picture, and if they have their reminder turned on, they are invited to add Alt Text to describe the image, making the platform more accessible to people who are blind, have visual impairments, or use assistive technology. 

It’s a small thing in the general course of events, but a massive step in making the internet even more accessible to people who need assistance to use it. 

So, why doesn’t every website or platform make accessibility its priority? Here, we look at the importance of accessibility in building digital platforms.

Why accessibility is important

21% of people in the UK have a disability – that’s one in five of us, or 14.1 million people

Since the Equality Act 2010, the definition of a person with a disability includes: 

  • Mobility issues

  • Manual dexterity problems

  • Hearing and visual impairments

  • Learning disabilities

  • Neuro-divergence

  • Mental health conditions

  • Communication difficulties

  • Disfigurement

  • People with long-term health conditions

With such a wide range of conditions, it’s easy to see that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to accessibility isn’t immediately obvious, and that people building digital platforms need to take into account the needs of a diverse range of people. 

In the UK, The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations came into force on 23 September 2018, aiming to ensure that websites and mobile apps within the public sector are accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. 

Specifically applying to public sector bodies, the regulations had two main requirements. Firstly, that websites meet standards of accessibility (meaning that they are ‘perceivable, operable, understandable and robust’), and secondly, that an accountability statement was published, declaring that all accessibility requirements have been met. 

What can developers do?

As recently as August 2022, the UK Government has advertised for its first Accessibility specialist. 

This person will be responsible for supporting, advising and guiding Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) specialists within the public sector on creating accessible digital services to amplify the voice of disabled users in their demands that digital services are accessible to all. It’s the first time such a role has been created, and a huge step forward in developing truly inclusive services. 

The government has published a range of guidance material for developers of public sector digital platforms, advising them of the best way to engage with people with a variety of disabilities in order to reduce barriers to information

Users with low vision, for example, may need good colour contrast and a combination of colours, shapes and text. Users who are deaf, or hard of hearing, should be provided with subtitles or a transcript of a video. And users with physical or motor disabilities benefit from large, clickable actions. 

But why does it really matter?

You may be asking why we need a champion of accessibility to push for inclusive digital platforms – after all, it’s a minority of the population, and most of us function very well without it. But we would like to politely remind you of the words of Pulitzer Prize winner, Pearl Buck: “the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members”. 

However, when we think back to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, we were all faced with the challenges of living a virtual life, which should be a poignant reminder that for some people, digital platforms play a huge and vital role in their daily lives. It helps people to shop, work and play, and without accessibility they are denied those opportunities. 

AbilityNet, a charity which champions accessible digital technology, produced a report in which it noted that a 2016 survey found that over 4 million people abandoned their attempts to purchase online because of the barriers they faced, and that abandonment meant a loss of £11.75 billion to retailers. This figure increased to £17.1 billion in 2019

So, you could argue that accessibility is simply a case of sound economics - that including people with diverse needs is good for the economy. But it is so much more than that. Even if you’re lucky enough not to need accessible platforms, we’re sure that at some point you’ve been frustrated by a website that hasn’t been optimised for your smartphone, or is frankly unreadable because of its colour scheme, font or bewildering layout. 

What does the future look like?

The government is apparently leading the way on accessibility on its own platforms, making the case that “Accessible websites usually work better for everyone. They are often faster, easier to use and appear higher in search engine rankings”. 

However, there is still a long way to go. Scope, the disability equality charity, noted in a 2020 press release that, “9 out of 10 of England's biggest councils are failing to meet website regulations”. Issues it found included confusing layouts, problems when attempting to enlarge text, poor colour contrast, and difficulties with using keyboard navigation. 

Plus, globally, the problem continues with under half of worldwide websites meeting accessible guidelines, according to a survey by a company called Applause, which gives feedback on the quality of digital experiences. 

Accessibility does matter, for financial, moral and legal reasons, and more importantly, because when we improve society for a small part of its participants we all benefit. It’s a small matter to ensure that your website is accessible, but it could make a big difference to someone else’s life.

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