Accessibility – busting a few misconceptions
For the past couple of months, we’ve been doing Show & Tell every few weeks to encourage knowledge sharing within the team. For the most recent one, I did a talk on accessibility to explain what it is, why it’s important and the various things we can do to improve the accessibility of our product. Accessibility should be the foundation of what we do, and as creators – whether we’re designers, developers, product managers – we all have the responsibility to make sure what we create is available to the widest audience possible.
Why should I care?
There are some common misconceptions around accessibility which often makes it a low priority to a business. I believe that’s because people don’t often understand the impact an inaccessible website can have.
“I don’t have users with disabilities”
The most common misconception I hear is probably “I don’t have users with disability”. Disability comes in many forms: visual, hearing, motor and cognitive. They also come in various level of severity. For example, when we talk about visual impairment, we’re not just talking about people with blindness. There are also people with low vision and colour blindness. Both are just as common forms of visual impairment. People with disabilities are around us a lot more than we realise. To give you a rough idea:
- In Australia and US, 1 in 5 people have some form of disability  
- In US, 8.1 million people have visual impairment, 7.6 million people have hearing difficulty and almost 20 million people have trouble lifting and grasping things 
- In Australia, 8% of people (mostly males) have some form of colour-blindness 
On top of this, there are also people with short-term impairment. I’m sure a lot of us have experienced repetitive strain injury (RSI) or broken an arm in an accident. We might end up needing to rely on the keyboard for a while and I’m quite certain it was a pretty frustrating experience. Our ageing population is also increasing, which means more and more people will have trouble with their vision, hearing and mobility.
“Accessibility is optional”
Accessibility is not optional. In the US, there’s Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act which requires any electronic and information technology used and maintained by the federal government agencies to be accessible to people with disabilities. This means if you provide any services to the government, they will need to be Section 508 compliant. It is also possible for people to make a complaint to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) if they find your website to be inaccessible. The Maguire V SOCOG 2000 case is a good example of that.
“Accessibility has little benefit for my business”
An accessible website doesn’t just benefit people with disabilities. In fact, accessibility and usability are very tightly related. Having things like consistent design, clear and readable content all contributes to the accessibility as well as usability of your website. So ultimately, better accessibility means better usability!
Improving accessibility of our product
The past couple of months, we have been making an effort in improving the accessibility of our product.
It is important to have meaningful text for important images especially for screen reader users. Our image uploader now has an “Alternative Text” field, allowing author to add alternative text to the images they upload. When no value is entered, rather than omitting the
alt attribute, we’ll output it with an empty value, i.e.
alt="" to ensure screen readers don’t read out the file path of the image source.
Accessibility Options Panel
To help students with visual impairment, they can access the “Accessibility Options Panel” to change the visual appearance of the assessment. They can choose to change the font size of the questions, as well as a different colour scheme if they have a particular colour blindness.
Use different visuals to convey meaning
As part of WCAG’s Success Criterion 1.4.1 Use of Color, we should not rely on using colour alone to convey meaning as some people may not be able to see the intended colour. I used a very handy Chrome extension called Spectrum to run a little test on our Questions. The extension shows you how people with different Colour Vision Deficiencies view things. Without any use of icons, this is what the validation of our MCQ looks like to people who have trouble seeing red and green. You can’t really tell which is the correct and incorrect answer.
Our text highlight and token highlight questions were relying on the yellow background colour to indicate highlighted text. To pass the accessibility criterion, we added a dark border around the highlighted text to make it stand out more.
Having a keyboard accessible assessment will benefit every student, especially those who can’t use a mouse or touchpad. In an Assessment, students can use left and right arrow keys to go through the different Items. In the past few weeks, we’ve been focusing on making some of our widgets keyboard accessible e.g. character map and the formula keyboard. We followed the DHTML Style Guide Working Group recommendation when determining keys for interaction:
- Use tab to move focus between widgets
- Once a user has tabbed into a widget, use arrow keys to navigate between elements for interaction
Our work is not done yet
When designing and developing, it is important that we think about users with different needs. Will a visually impaired person have trouble seeing this colour? How can someone with motor difficulty be able to interact with this question? Creating a rich and interactive application that is fully accessible is no easy task, and there is still so much to be done. But we are definitely trying our best and continuing our work in ensuring students are not disadvantaged when using our Assessments.