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Web accessibility for web designers & developers

  • Published on June 16, 2021
Web accessibility for web designers & developers

Recently web accessibility and web design put Beyonce in the news rather than a new hit album. A visually impaired woman from New York filed a lawsuit against Beyonce Knowles’ company, Parkwood Entertainment, claiming her website isn’t accessible to visually impaired users. Internet law experts and web accessibility advocates agree web designers and developers can learn a lesson from the case.
The New Yorker who filed the web accessibility lawsuit is Mary Conner who is legally blind. She has no vision whatsoever, according to the class action complaint. Conner claims that the website is “exclusively visual,” therefore she cannot use it without the help of someone who can see.
Conner and other visually impaired people use screen-reading software or devices to turn text into speech in order to browse the Internet, where accessible websites can be effectively navigated. Sites that have no text, descriptive markers, or navigational aids make it difficult or impossible for a visually impaired user to navigate the website.

Websites that are not fully accessible, as Conner claims is, could be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act for denying visually impaired people full use of their services.

“By failing to make the website accessible to blind persons, Defendant is violating basic equal access requirements under both state and federal law,” Conner’s attorney Dan Shaked wrote in the complaint.

What is web accessibility?

Web accessibility means that a website or web application can be used by anyone regardless of disability, according to Rebecca Cremona, a web developer at Harvard University’s Library Innovation Lab.

Cremona said many people assume this means web accessibility guidelines only exist for the benefit of disabled people, but that accessibility actually ensures easy access to web pages for everyone.

A site could be considered inaccessible, for instance, if it cannot be read due to color schemes which make the words on the screen hard to read, or if it cannot be viewed on a mobile device.

Describing web accessibility Cremona said, “It’s not just for people who identify as disabled. We all benefit from accessible web technology and websites.”

Web accessibility for designers and developers

Web accessibility guidelines are important to keep in mind for web designers and web developers even though they are often overlooked.

“Many people can work for decades in the field and not have any awareness that web accessibility is even a thing,” Cremona said.

James Grimmelmann, a professor at Cornell Law School who studies Internet law, said web publishers with good training are often aware of web accessibility, but can still find themselves caught in lawsuits.

“The challenges come either when people use idiosyncratic home-built tools and have not thought about how to build accessibility into them, or when you have frameworks that aren’t built with accessibility in mind,” he said.

Larger companies that are culturally relevant, like Beyonce’s Parkwood Entertainment, are also more likely to attract attention for accessibility issues.

“Many, many large companies have been hit with this suit,” Grimmelmann said, citing a case the National Federation of the Blind brought against Target for having an inaccessible website. Learning accessibility is an important part of learning web design.

Making your website accessible

To avoid inadvertently violating web accessibility guidelines, Grimmelmann recommended making sure images on a site are accompanied by text, making navigation easy to access, and staying away from scripts that obscure elements of the page.

“It’s easier to build accessibility into a website from the beginning,” he said. “There are design choices you have to undo, and that’s going to be slower and more expensive than doing it properly from the start.”

Cremona, the Harvard developer, suggested using resources like WebAIM as a checklist to ensure accessibility when designing and automated accessibility evaluation tools like WAVE to test accessibility.

 “It’s just part of the process,” she said. “Huge numbers of people are affected by this, and if you’re putting something on the Internet, what’s the point of restricting your audience?”

Reported and written by Alyssa Meyers
Photo Credit: Guide Dog Foundation

About the author

Christopher Smith is president of American Graphics Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the publisher and editor of the Digital Classroom book series, which have sold more than one million copies. At American Graphics Institute, he provides strategic technology consulting to marketing professionals, publishers and to large technology companies including Google, Apple, Microsoft, and HP. An expert on web analytics and digital marketing, he delivers Google Analytics classes along with workshops on digital marketing topics. He is also the author of more than 10 books on electronic publishing tools and technologies, including the Adobe Creative Cloud for Dummies. Christopher did his undergraduate studies the at the University of Minnesota, and then worked for Quark, Inc. prior to joining American Graphics Institute where he has worked for 20 years.