Accessibility: Why it's vital we build our digital estates like we do our physical ones

By Paul Alexander, Head of Quality Assurance at xDesign.

  • 1 year ago Posted in

Walk into any new-build home in the UK and it will be laden with features that were not present in a 1960s equivalent. From significant features like wheelchair-compatible door frames, right down to the minutiae of plug sockets being placed at the right height from the ground; every detail of our modern built environment is there by design, rather than accident.

Legislation relating to buildings and accessibility has been around for over 50 years. In fact, in the US it was initially enshrined within the Civil Rights Bill under details dealing with discrimination. This for me is a wonderful example of treating accessibility as a social issue as opposed to a medical one.

And so, the decades that followed saw organisations retrofitting for accessibility on a huge scale. Adding ramps to entrances, installing lifts/elevators to buildings, repositioning furniture and fittings, switching out door knobs for handles or later replacing them with automatic doors.

In the context of the digital landscape, I believe we’re feted to continue the trend for retrofitting that occurred in the built environment. To avoid this we need a shift in attitudes to the issues surrounding accessibility and the way we approach and build digital products.

The move to retrofitting

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were published back in 1994 and many companies have spent their time, effort and money since, retrofitting screen reader compatibility, analysing colour pallets and reviewing and revising user journeys. Surely evidence enough that we’re already in the clutches of a retrofit mentality? What’s more, the parallels between our physical and digital environments are even more striking when you consider that the first building-specific legislation for accessibility was only applicable to Government-owned buildings. Fast forward to 2022 and the tangible legislation in place for the web is only enforceable on Government digital estates. It’s apparent then, that history does indeed repeat itself.

A disposable culture

Retrofitting is fine but should only be undertaken if it’s the only option to make something accessible. However, I believe we need to rethink our approach to building our digital environment so that it is less wasteful and costly.

Our current approach is probably symptomatic of the disposable age we live in (which by the way is no excuse). The longevity of products has become less important and people are less patient/invested in quality.

Drawing the same comparison with the digital world, I believe we’ve treated our digital products and solutions with the same disregard. After all, they’re not tangible entities, so,

therefore, must not be worth as much. Furthermore, why would we invest time and money into a rounded solution when we could have something shiny immediately? Velocity trumps quality in this scenario and retrospectively it is sincerely disheartening.

But, what’s the alternative?

A new approach: What we need to consider

Put simply, building digital products that are ‘built to last’.

We need to take the time to really consider all the variables that could shape an individual's interaction with a digital product or service. For instance, we cannot focus purely on the medical model of disability but also look to the social model to identify exclusion and find solutions to mismatches. Cognitive load, economic/locational constraints, as well as ethical and cultural considerations are all just as important in our modern world too.

As it stands there is very little to enforce accessibility standards in terms of legislation. The Accessibility Discrimination Act and the Equalities Act in the UK deal with discrimination and ultimately that is tantamount to accessibility. By disregarding/neglecting people with capability mismatches, we are discriminating against the people who will most benefit from digital solutions whilst opening ourselves up to accusations of discrimination, reputational damage, and to be rather vulgar, financial implications.

Developing web solutions like buildings?

So, what if we started looking at web solutions like buildings?

As tradesmen and building firms are subject to scrutiny over the width of door frames, the positioning of utilities and rights of access, so too should the tech community be scrutinised for the accessibility they build into their digital products and services. We should be taking more responsibility for the things we build, and work to standards (whether legally binding or not) to ensure that our products are robust and usable, creating digital entities we can be proud of.

This is something we’ve fostered at xDesign through our Accessibility Council, which meets regularly to discuss how we can better bake accessibility and inclusive design into digital products right from the beginning of a project. We often start by understanding a particular user experience and then work to make our thinking come to life via our products and technology.

We believe that good product design fixes a problem, however, great product design fixes for one, and also extends to many.

Building a digital legacy

Any person who has a parent that works in a traditional trade will have had the unenviable experience of being subjected to ‘I worked on that house’ or ‘I dug the foundations for that office block’.

However, while it can be tiresome to hear, why should we not have the same pride in our work? Build things to last that people will use for the long term, rather than providing quick-fix solutions that will ultimately have no longevity.

Ask yourself the question: Would I be proud to show my family my work? Let's make sure the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

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