Back in February, I spent a day at the 2018 edition of the Perth Web Accessibility Camp. I learnt about new ways we can make the web more accessible and was introduced to new concepts, technology and tools to assist with accessibility.
It was my first time attending an accessibility-focused event and I was both pleasantly surprised and delighted to see such a wide, diverse and engaged number of attendees. Apparently, it was the largest event to date and I think that must speak volumes for accessibility finally taking priority in the minds of digital creators.
I got a lot out of the day and left feeling inspired to be more conscientious about making my work more accessible and usable for all. In the spirit of paying it forward, I thought I’d run through my personal highlights and learnings of the day, with the hope that this will encourage further exploration and action of your own.
SeeingAI iOS app
David Masters (Corporate Affairs Director at Microsoft) took us through some of the company’s interesting and innovative research projects, and covered a few of their internal accessibility processes.
The most memorable aspect of this talk was the introduction to their iOS app, SeeingAI, which helps visually impaired people to “narrate the world around them”. A user can point the app to something as basic as an object, as unique as a person, or as complex as a group of people, and the app will describe what it sees — from the brand of an object, the age of a person, or the make-up of a crowd. As well as SeeingAI, David also referenced the production of a similar and upcoming app for the hearing impaired, HearingAI.
SeeingAI demonstration and technical difficulties
Ayesha Patterson, an accessibility consultant and disability advocate, followed David Master’s talk with a live demo of the SeeingAI app.
Live demos are difficult to pull off at the best of times — unfortunately, this one was no exception. While the app worked well, Ayesha encountered difficulty in navigating to and within the app, needing to adjust iOS’s VoiceOver screen reader settings right there in front us. Of course, Ayesha handled this wonderfully and eventually got everything to work, but the ordeal was an insightful and revealing lesson in how much effort someone with an impairment needs to invest in order to use what able-bodied people can afford to take for granted.
I have to admit, my gaming history extends to completing Spyro and Crash Bandicoot back when I was a teenager, so it’s no surprise to me that I hadn’t given much thought to accessibility within games… but of course accessible gameplay is and should be a thing!
Being so green, I was totally captivated by Amanda Mace’s (Digital Accessibility Operations Manager at WebKeyIT) talk about her brother’s journey from “everyday gamer” to League of Legends coach, all while dropping some interesting statistics around gaming and accessibility within gaming.
Did you know that there are 2.6 billion gamers worldwide?
Did you know that 68% of Australians, including 39% of adults over 65, enjoy playing online games?
How about that 20% of Australians have a disability?
Or that 10% of men experience colour blindness?
Or how about this — that, contrary to popular belief, gaming actually offers health benefits…
— JulieG (@stringy) February 15, 2018
After hearing these statistics, I was very surprised to learn that games are not accessible to the elderly and those with an impairment or disability, because of barriers such as inaccessible controllers, inaccessible chat features, lack of colour contrast and no way to adjust the level of complexity. Doesn’t it surprise you too, when gaming looks to provide so many benefits to those who may need access to it the most?
There’s currently a push to improve accessibility standards in gaming apps, via a study that “aims to describe a gap between Game Accessibility Guidelines and WCAG 2.0”. You can help out with the study by taking part in this survey.
Design systems that prioritises accessibility at the core
Jason O’Neil (Senior Software Engineer at Culture Amp) gave us a great overview of the way Culture Amp’s design system encourages accessibility compliance and, more specifically, how their design system encourages accessible, on-brand colours.
Culture Amp’s design system shows all of the possible and accessible colour/text combinations, and their contrast ratings, so the designers and engineers at Culture Amp can always make informed and accessible design choices when it comes to colour.
This was really great to see because it was a clear sign of a company considering accessibility at the core instead of it being treated as an after-thought and merely a way to tick some boxes.
Culture Amp have made their palette available to view by the public, so check it out yourself on their website. While you’re there, take a look at the rest of their design system too!
Other Nuggets. Mmm, Nuggets.
Throughout the day, we got many other little nuggets of gold that piqued my interest and kept me thinking beyond the camp…
- Design for everyone: this includes permanent and temporary disability. (David Masters)
- Solve for one, design for many by scaling solutions. Think big. A solution for someone can become a solution for everyone. (David Masters)
- Designing for a specific person with distinct needs and goals can inspire you to come up with new product ideas in ways you didn’t imagine. (David Masters)
- The four principles of accessibility require content to be: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. (Zel Iscel)
- Most problematic items of the web include: missing/improper alt text, missing/improper headings, too many links, complex data tables, inaccessible/missing search and missing “skip” links. (Zel Iscel)
- Don’t forget accessibility within documents such as Word Documents and PDFs. In Word documents, get familiar with the pilcrow (¶) and add incremental spacing between paragraphs, not blank lines. In PDFs, make use of document properties, structure tags and use of bookmarks for increased document accessibility and usability. (Matthew Putland)
- Keep your content concise in order to keep it highly accessible. Only provide key information. (Amanda Branley)
What I learnt…
Well, in all honesty, I learnt a lot. But I found overarching themes to my learning that I hope to take with me into my future work.
Empathy: Using assistive technologies is a lot of effort
I’ve never seen someone properly use a screen reader before, let alone also configure it for their needs. I didn’t realise how much effort goes into reading the words on a screen and how jarring and unpleasant the experience can be.
Having never used this sort of technology for a prolonged period of time, I appreciate that my view is likely very different to someone who uses these technologies on a daily basis. However, at some early point, every person with a disability or impairment would have had to experience the technologies for the first time in the same way I did. The difference being that I could switch off at any time, while those with an impairment or disability are met with the unnecessary and unfair burden of tolerating a poor experience in order to adjust.
Although adjustment seems to be possible, these subpar experiences in the early stages of use shouldn’t exist at all. After all, they could mean the difference between someone choosing to use the technology for their prolonged benefit or someone choosing to opt out prematurely.
We’re in a position to change
Based on the above, it’d be easy to suggest we just make assistive tools more pleasant to use. While that’s a valid solution and definitely part of the bigger picture, we could also do more to make sure the things we make are highly accessible, thoughtful and inclusive, lowering the amount of reliance people have on assistive technologies. In my mind, the level of effort that goes into using a product should be pretty close between an able-bodied person and a temporarily or permanently disabled person.
Since the camp, I’ve started to look at accessibility considerations as an interesting design challenge rather than a creative hindrance. I think about the things I could do better to make my work accessible and they’re all things I can implement tomorrow with a quick mindset change. When it’s this easy for us to get started on helping improve the experience and lives of those who use our creations, there really isn’t any reason for us not to make accessibility a priority.
People change for people
“People change for people”
This sums up my entire experience of Perth Web Accessibility Camp. Hearing stories from, and interacting with, people with various temporary and permanent disabilities and impairments, made me so much more empathetic to their needs and requirements. An abstract and lifeless list of technical standards and requirements isn’t going to inspire me and make me want to change, but knowing that people benefit from the changes I make will.
It’s helpful to remember when talking to clients and peers in the future, too as it’s hard to sell the benefits of complying to standards you can’t experience and fully appreciate as an able-bodied person. I believe it’s far more powerful to explain it in terms of the effects it will have on people.
Before Perth Web Accessibility Camp, I thought I did enough to consider the accessibility needs of the wider community. But I left feeling like I could and needed to do so much more.
I couldn’t recommend this event more. It’s lively, informative and very inclusive, and unlike any sort of conference I’ve been to before, my learning not only happened through the speakers’ content, but also through the things I saw and experienced, as well as the and the interactions I had with fellow attendees.
Before I finish, I want to leave you with a quote I found on my travels through the internet after PWAC. This is from Dr Vivienne Conway, Director of WebKeyIT, a world-renowned accessibility expert and one of the speakers from the event:
“When we truly embrace digital accessibility, not only do we meet our local legislative and International human rights obligations, but we also reduce costs, and build our internal capacity for design and innovation. Our clients become our partners in building for universal design and they in turn build partnerships with their customers, continually creating delightful user experiences.”
👏 Perth Web Accessibility Camp, 10 outta 10! See you next year!