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Digital accessibility

Mike Dunn uses this article to explore inclusive approaches to the design of technology.
An Ishihara plate for testing colour blindness.
© University of York (author: Susan Halfpenny)
Creating accessible documents and thinking about inclusive user design makes our digital outputs more accessible to everyone. So why are there so many bad practices about? Is it intentional or are we just overlooking this when we produce electronic information?
There are three design concepts that have emerged to describe how we can create resources that are usable for the largest group of individuals, including individuals with a disability. These are:
  • Accessibility: designing materials that are accessible to people with a disability. This approach looks at removing any barriers that may prevent someone with a disability either engaging in a particular activity or accessing information.
  • Usability: considers the ease of use to a product or service to achieve a particular task or goal efficiently and effectively. Usable design requires lots of user-testing to ensure that the design of either a service or platform is intuitive to the user.
  • Inclusion (or universal design): is “the design of products and environments to be useable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation of specialised design” (Center for Universal Design, 2008). Universal design is the broadest concept and aims to ensure products and services are accessible to, and usable by, people with a wide range of characteristics.
There are research methods and principles that can be applied to improve the accessibility and usability of the information we disseminate, the platforms that we develop, and the services we offer. Two approaches that are particularly useful for the design of information technologies are Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and User Experience Design (UX techniques):
Both these research methods aim to improve how we interact and use information technologies, making products and services more accessible to people with a wide range of characteristics.

Things to consider to improve accessibility

There’s lots of information available about improving the design of materials. Here are just a few suggestions to get you started:
  • Clear and concise writing and instructions – improves accessibility generally: more people are better able to understand it. Avoiding jargon, unnecessary acronyms, and the like makes the text more accessible for non-native speakers.
  • Properly structure your information – while it may seem obvious that some large bold text on its own line is a title of some kind, it won’t necessarily be so obvious if your document is being read by a screen reader. Word processed documents and web pages have style and heading options that can give them a proper structure and outline in a range of devices. In web design, it’s important to have a clear navigation system and avoid multilayered menus which can be tricky to use (especially with a screen reader).
  • Be considerate with your use of colour – some colours are more accessible than others so it’s useful to think about this when choosing a colour palette. Take a look at these colour blindness filter examples to see the difference good colour selection can make. Be sure to have a clear contrast between text and background and avoid overlaying text on detailed or busy backgrounds as this is problematic for partially sighted users.
  • Use alt-text for pictures – in web design, alternative text for images allows the image to be understood in a text browser or screen reader. Also consider that hyperlinks should have a meaningful name on the link, rather than just “this link” or “click here”, as these can be confusing on some e-readers and screen-readers that build menus from links on a page.
While it’s true that some web browsers include tools for improving the accessibility of web pages, it’s a lot easier, a lot more effective, and downright friendlier all round, if content is accessible from the offset. If you’ve any other tips for improving the accessibility of documents, please do share them in the comments section below.
© University of York (author: Susan Halfpenny)
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