Tech Mythbusting #5: Building Accessible Apps Is Difficult

Statistically, you are bound to know someone who lives with a disability. It may be a neighbour who has a hard time walking, or an aunt who has vision problems, or a colleague at work who manages a chronic illness. The truth is disability takes many forms. Nevertheless, people have come up with many ways to live full lives, no matter their physical condition.

Here are what the facts state:

  • About 15% of the world’s population – that’s 1 in every 7 people – live with a form of disability. Of this number, between 110 million and 190 million adults have significant difficulties functioning in their day-to-day lives. Some 93 million children under 15 years of age live with a moderate or severe disability.
  • The number of people who will experience disability during their lifetime is on the rise. This is due to populations ageing, the global increase of chronic illnesses, as well as better methodologies used to measure disability. Moreso, patterns of disability are influenced by trends in health conditions and environmental and other factors. Things like road traffic crashes, violence, natural disasters, conflict, unhealthy diet or substance abuse.

If you are reading this article, chances are you are thinking of an app that takes advantage of an empty market niche, solves a problem or just offers something entertaining for a certain audience. The question we have for you is this: have you also thought of making your app accessible for the up to 15% of your audience who may have a disability? Unless you’re building an app directly addressed to them, you’re probably thinking the developers will take care of this. And most likely, you’re also thinking it may be a complicated task, that may be above your knowledge.

Here is the truth of the matter: the difficulty of making your app accessible doesn’t depend so much on the complexity of the app itself, as it depends on when you start implementing accessibility guidelines. Not surprisingly, stakeholders started thinking about accessibility once they realised the world wide web was playing a greater role in how we interact with the world itself. Whether it’s public institutions, banks, companies or with each other, technological progress has had on impact everywhere. So tech experts and advisory committees started thinking of solutions to combat the barriers of access tech had put in place for people with disabilities.

Enter the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

The WCAG are part of a series on guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium, the international standards organisation for the web. The guidelines have the specific role of helping developers make their content accessible for people with disabilities, across different types of devices and products.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The current version, WCAG 2.0, published in December 2008, is based on four principles applicable to content:

  • Perceivable – meaning that information must be presented to the users in ways they can perceive (the information cannot be invisible to all senses).
  • Operable – user interface components and navigation must be operable (the interface cannot require an operation the user cannot perform)
  • Understandable – this is rather self-explanatory. Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable to any user
  • Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably in a variety of methods, including assistive technologies. It also means the digital product must remain accessible as technology and tools advance.

Each principle has a set of guidelines and success criteria, and depending on how many criteria a digital product meets, it’s categorised into one of three levels of accessibility (A, AA, and AAA). Realistically, few digital products could meet the AAA standard. That is because designers and developers are still bound to create products that are attractive to the majority of the public. Conforming to the AA level, however, is the middle ground where all can meet. It allows digital products to keep the looks we’re all used to, while also having an underside of accessibility features that make it available for people with disabilities.

The WCAG 2.0 has been so well received, today it’s a standard all on its own. The document has become an ISO standard in 2012. Countries, including Australia, US, Canada, the European Union and others have adopted the guide, especially the AA level conformity criteria, as accessibility laws and policies for the digital products of public institutions and their affiliates. The EU also has in works a directive based on the same guidelines that would apply to privately owned digital products as well.

While it may be taking a while, states and their public institutions are getting in the position of being accessible to all their citizens. What is left is for accessibility to become common in the private sector as well, but that is not as easy to achieve.

Digital accessibility in the private sector is not mandatory, but it is recommended

There is still a long road until all digital products become accessible to everyone. The way is paved by the major players in the tech world, who are not ignoring the special needs of people with disabilities. Here is one reason why you shouldn’t either.

Accessibility is a common topic at Google’s I/O Conference, and their recommendations are constantly improved. They also provide their developers with an accessibility scanner to offer suggestions to improve their apps. And while these don’t replace real-life testing, it is a big help for most developers. Apple has accessibility guides for all their devices, tailored to their own award-winning assistive technologies. Microsoft as well has developed standards for their own platforms. While it’s not mandatory to make your digital product accessible to people with disabilities at the WCAG 2.0 AA level, respecting each platform’s requirements are part of building your app.

You should be aware that universal digital accessibility isn’t a question of ‘if’, as much as it is a question of ‘when’. Do you need to push for accessibility in the validation phase of your product? Not unless your main audience is likely to have some form of disability. After all, your main objective at this point is to prove the viability of your business strategy. And this is completely dependent on finding your core audience.

Should you think about accessibility in your first upgrades? Definitely. The expertise you need to make your product accessible to people with disabilities is out there. The sooner you start working on accessibility, the easier it becomes to implement and scale. Most importantly, no one will mind if you don’t get it right the first time around. Just as with any features, you learn, you implement, you test, and you start all over again, making your app better with every iteration.

Technology should widen opportunities, not become a barrier

Any person with disabilities may still want to order a cab, look to order dinner after a long day or browse products looking for the perfect gift for a friend or a spouse. They may work in STEM fields, in social fields or make art for a living. They might be looking for that perfect vacation they’re going on next summer. Technology has made many aspects of our life easier. So there’s no excuse for it to become a barrier, whether for people with disabilities or people who become temporarily disabled. The tasks that we take for granted, that are part of our everyday live, have become easier or more delightful since technology advanced. But they can also become unwieldy for those with disabilities, if accessibility standards have not been implemented correctly.

At the end of the day, technology should widen opportunities for everyone, not become a barrier of entry for some. Building accessibility into your product is beyond the business advantages of widening your audience or making it more versatile. Plainly, it’s about being nice and kind to your fellow humans.

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