If you design a city for healthy young people, then it is accessible for healthy young people.

If you design a city for people in a wheelchair, for people with poor hearing and eye-sight, for elderly and infirm people, then it is accessible to everyone.

After all, accessible by wheelchair also makes it more accessible for skateboarders and parents pushing strollers and bikers. Safer for the elderly (who maybe can’t see or hear so well) also means safer for small children (who don’t pay attention to dangers around them).

The above doesn’t seem like such as stretch. It doesn’t even change the cost of design too much. Making places wheelchair accessible, for instance, doesn’t make construction more expensive or cheaper. Just different. In fact, modern cities are built more and more around this principle and it does make the city a more vibrant and fun place. For everyone.

So far so good. 

Online doesn’t play

However, the online the world looks very much like the city built for healthy young people. If you are not comfortable using digital tools, if you can’t read small, low-contrast text, if you are not sure of what the red button does, then you can’t play there. 

Online accessibility is a problem. The same way stairs with no ramp option are a problem. 

Technical support

In my family I am technical support. On a daily basis I see how hard it is for an elderly (but sharp and modern) person to navigate all the different platforms, softwares and hardwares, to participate in online life. Tech support from the hosts of different environments is all geared towards explaining tech to the tech-savvy. But to an 83 year old, it is all greek.

The difference between a URL, a website, an online bank and a homepage is not obvious. Neither is the need for different user names and passwords (that you need to remember) and two factor identification based on social security numbers and an app in your phone. And then there is the password to your computer, the user name of it, how that relates to your computer app store account (or doesn’t), how that is connected to your phone (or isn’t). Add on top the need for multi-tasking in various softwares and communication platforms during online meetings, and a person that is a little bit afraid of technology because she isn’t comfortable with it, and you have a recipe for confusion and aversion. In the worst case scenario, it ends with the person not participating at all in online discourse.

The online world is not accessible to people uncomfortable with tech, the way a stair case is not accessible to either a parent with a baby carriage or a wheelchair bound person.

Designed by the designer for the designer

As long as the design of things and services and environments is done mainly by healthy males, then there will be an inherent bias towards making things work well for healthy males. This is discriminatory towards women in general, because everything from the way a seat-belt works in a car to the size of smart-phone is based on male proportions and physiology. But it is especially descriminatory towards young and old and non-typical people in every way. In short: stairs everywhere.

Online accessibility = offline accessibility = accessibility

The online world has to be as accessible to everyone, as the offline world. Ramps and automatic doors and flat surfaces and benches to rest on and so on. In the real world, it starts with putting yourself in other people’s shoes, and trying to access a building in a wheelchair, or cross a road as an octogenarian, or open a door as five year old. In the online world, it also requires a bit of empathy to imagine and work towards making the site work for everyone. Fortunately there are also online tools, to help ensure accessibility for all.

A checklist to consider for accessibility improvements includes:

– language settings (especially for multi-lingual countries)

– enabling visual indicators (for keyboard enabled navigation)

– preparing the site for screen readers (allows you to listen to websites)

– preparing your site structure (a clear hierarchy of text, that can be toggled through in the right order)

– images and galleries with descriptions (for screen readers) for the visually impaired

– text and graphics that are clearly discernable, with legible fonts and type sizes

– reduced motion (less things that move around and are fancy)

– Videos, audio and documents made accessible (videos with transcripts etc)

– Adding an accessibility statement to your site, with a feedback loop, so that users can help you improve.

Just as design for inclusion isn’t common in the real world (but getting better), it is also missing in the virtual world. However, as we move more and more online, there is a real risk of leaving many people behind if we don’t make a concerted effort to bring them along. Making sure your online presence is accessible to all, is a good step in that direction.

If you want to know more about this, or human centred design in general, get in touch with us.