Anybody who works in, or is familiar with, the digital world knows how quickly trends emerge and evolve. Whether we’re talking about design, development, marketing or consumption, new patterns are continually being popularized while some old ones fall by the wayside. Those who create digital content and tools must keep pace with these emerging and shifting trends, or they risk falling behind.
The Legal Side of Accessibility
Often, digital trends are determined by what catches a population’s attention and entices them to keep coming back. Sometimes, however, trends emerge in order to comply with government regulations. Consider the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that was passed by the European Union and came into law in 2018. Companies around the world with websites that collect user data must now be far more transparent about how they obtain and transfer this data. They must embrace stronger user privacy practices, otherwise, they cannot operate in any member state of the EU without risking legal action.
Accessibility for people with disabilities is one aspect of the Internet that has prompted the passing of laws in various jurisdictions, such as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the United States. While these laws are more limited in scope compared to GDPR—the AODA does not apply to companies from outside of Ontario, even if Ontarians are able to use their websites —it is only a matter of time before such laws are adopted in more countries, prompted by society’s increasing awareness and scrutiny of minority rights. As legal and public perception trends evolve, so too must trends regarding accessible development and design.
When We Adopt Standards Together, We Stand Together
The adoption of digital accessibility standards has influenced these trends. Previously, screen readers, which many people rely on to access content on the Web, didn’t follow an agreed-upon set of standards. This meant that each web browser handled each brand’s screen reader differently, and designing web content that worked with every combination was difficult. This is much less of a problem today, with browsers and accessibility software adhering to many of the same standards. As a result, accessibility issues can often be avoided by using valid markup, as opposed to requiring a lot of custom scripts and extra properties.
Another trend among accessible websites involves using standard HTML elements for the purpose they were designed for. Because assistive technology is programmed to work with these elements, they provide an accessible experience straight out of the box. These can be styled using CSS to make them visually appealing without interfering with how screen reader and keyboard users interact with them.
Websites that are not accessible frequently utilize custom user interface controls, which require a lot of extra code to be accessible to all users and may still be more difficult for people with disabilities to use. Custom code is also less likely to be supported by the wide array of browsers used by a website’s audience, presenting problems for all users.
Tools For Digital Accessibility
As awareness of the need for accessible websites grows, so does the availability of tools that can aid developers in designing them. Advances in artificial intelligence have included many benefits for people with disabilities. Computers can transcribe spoken words into text, detect text on paper or in an image and translate it to digital text, and even analyze an image and tell someone who cannot see it what might be in the picture. Organizations and developers can use these tools to make accessible documents available and provide transcripts, descriptions, and captions to their media. These should always be reviewed and corrected by human eyes, because such methods are often imperfect, but making use of increasingly available AI can reduce the time it takes to make content fully accessible.
It’s About Perspective
Accessibility laws that require websites to be accessible frequently have other provisions that make it illegal to refuse to hire a person because of a disability. Some jurisdictions go a step further by providing incentives to organizations that hire workers with disabilities. Organizations can take full advantage of this trend by including people with accessibility needs in the planning, development, and testing phases of their websites and products. Leveraging the skill sets and experiences of people with disabilities when designing a website is a great way to ensure that it will be accessible and usable by everyone.
2020 is demonstrating the importance of access to digital information and services, at a time when the rights of marginalized groups are gaining public support and media attention. The demand for accessible websites will only grow. An organization or developer who follows trends that simplify and improve the process of designing websites that are usable by everyone will find themselves well positioned for the future: a future where accessible websites are the norm.