You Don’t Say? Web Accessibility Issues Oft Ignored

Web accessibility is a topic that I am rather interested in, as I am sure you are all aware, whether I am thinking about transcripts or considering the best way to lay out a web page. Accessibility, on the surface, seems simple; we want the Internet to be a place where everyone can be, so we should work on making it accessible to people with disabilities. But it’s actually quite complex. Not necessarily difficult, but complex, and it’s important to avoid oversimplifying it in the service of berating people for not meeting accessibility standards.

There are some accessibility issues that are pretty widely integrated into primers on accessible design. Making link text more meaningful, for example; instead of linking to something with the text ‘this’ it is more advisable to link to it with ‘something descriptive so that someone using a screenreader (and everyone else) knows where the hell the link goes.’ Transcripts. Image descriptions. The ability to resize text. I’m seeing more and more sites adopting togglable black on white/white on black themes so that people who prefer one version or the other have a choice.

These are all good things to be talking about. I am glad to see more and more people integrating them as concerns when they are thinking about laying out websites, how to present information online, and related matters.

But there are other accessibility issues that don’t get talked about as much, and here is where we start entering the tangled web of conflicting accommodations. What’s good for one person is not necessarily good for another, and an accommodation made in one area may result in a lack of accessibility in another. It’s why I am a huge fan of sites that allow users, to some extent, to control the display of content: To drag and drop menus to places that work for them, to change font sizes and colours, to adjust what displays and what doesn’t, because this allows people to customise their environment so that it meets their needs.

But all of this is useless if there are some, how shall I  put it, fundamental accessibility problems. Not just those listed above, but other issues that people don’t always think of as immediately falling under the umbrella of accessibility. Take, for example, animations.

When I encounter animations, my brain goes completely haywire. I’m talking about flashing banners, animated charts, animated icons, anything that moves. These are not things that I can scroll past or ignore. They render a page completely unreadable for me. If I cannot figure out how to turn the animation off, I have to close the page, because I just can’t deal. An easy way to solve this would be to not include animations, or to provide an option for toggling them, with the default setting being off.

Likewise with autoplay things. Autoplay audio and video are extremely annoying. We all  know this by now. So…why do some sites continue to use it? And, specifically, to use it without any option to turn it off once it starts playing? This isn’t just annoying from a disability perspective, it’s also just noxious to pretty much everyone using the Internet. Somehow, webmasters haven’t gotten the memo.

What about those confetti animations, which seem especially common around the winter holidays? You know, the ones where snow drifts gently across the screen? In addition to being visually distracting, they are also terrifying for some people with migraines, because they look like the visual disturbances some folks get with auras. So they go to a page, see floaty things, panic, and then realise it’s some silly animation someone used to be cute.

What about excessive use of italics, caps, and bold? Randomly changing fonts and font sizes? These things aren’t just aesthetically questionable, they can make it hard for some people with disabilities to engage with a site and read the content. I for one can’t read more than a line or two of italic text. A whole post? No, thank you. Bold is pretty hard on the eyes too. Did we forget that these things are designed for emphasis, rather than being good stylistic choices for setting an entire text?

Font colours dangerously close to the background color. Really big font. Really tiny font. Patterned backgrounds. Photographs as backgrounds. These are all accessibility problems. They are also aesthetic choices, of course, and they aren’t accessibility problems for all people, but for those who are, they can be really annoying and alienating. Making some small changes could vastly improve accessibility, and make all users feel more comfortable, as well as valued, at a site.

No one is perfect and no one can predict all accessibility needs. It’s simply not possible, and no one expects it of anyone. But I try to be alert to the things that I see people identifying as accessibility issues, especially if they are things that I had not thought about before. This is something that I and we are constantly learning and working on. Accessibility isn’t a dichotomy, it’s a continuum. There are so many things to think about and so many things to balance.

All that we can ask and hope for is more awareness. That people pay attention when accessibility issues are brought to their attention, that people put serious thought into integrating full accessibility into their sites, and that when people do learn new things about accessibility, they share them. People with resources should make them available, whether it’s information about a font size plugin or advice on accessible themes.

I want to see accessibility become the standard. To make it easy. To expand the way that people think about accessibility.