Why Accessibility Matters
Mike Fox, Lighthouse Works Software designer and accessibility expert, at his computer working on some code using a screen magnifier

In observance of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, May 20th, 2021, we asked one of our accessibility experts at Lighthouse, Mike Fox, to share some thoughts and insights on Why Accessibility Matters.

Why Accessibility Matters

by: Mike Fox, Software Designer, Lighthouse Works, Inc.

What is the importance of inclusion, and how does digital accessibility allow independence?

To answer the first question (regarding inclusion in general), it’s just the right thing to do. Inclusion is one of our core values at Lighthouse, and it’s something we strive for. It’s important that we consider everyone, and that’s why accessibility matters. All people, regardless of disability or other differences, should have equal access to the same things as everyone else. Whether it be buildings, web services, apps, documents, or something else, disability should not be a gatekeeper.

To answer the second question (regarding digital accessibility specifically), the short answer is “it levels the playing field”. As an example, in the early 2000s, my computer skills were good but not great. I could get by, setting all the fonts to be as big as possible, using the smallest screen resolution possible, and other workarounds like that. To make matters worse, in 2007 they moved away from menu bars in MS Office, in favor of pictures and symbols. This change made it hard to even do basic stuff I could do in my sleep now. Then came full-screen magnification software (Windows Magnifier, the iPhone’s zoom, etc.) and BOOM! All of a sudden I can see everything. Because of that added accessibility, my vision was no longer an obstacle. Now I’m an experienced programmer, writing software that breaks down more accessibility barriers at Lighthouse Works!

Why should accessibility be a priority for businesses?

I’m far from a business expert, definitely stronger on the tech side of things, but I do know this: businesses exist to make money. This, to me, means the answer is common sense. First off, by making their products accessible, people with disabilities will want them! If people can’t buy something because the e-commerce platform is inaccessible, that’s money slipping through the cracks. If there are digital products for sale (such as movies or games), and they are not accessible, there goes more money down the drain. As an example, I’ve never bought a Switch or a PlayStation because I have a hard time seeing important details in the fancy 3D graphics; I play retro games, because that’s what I can see best (and also nostalgia, but that’s off-topic). But if they had enough accessible games, I would seriously consider getting one! I grew up on Zelda, I love the pictures I’ve seen of NHL 2K21, and I could go on – if those games were accessible, that would be money in some company’s pocket.

And of course I have to address the elephant in the room: no company likes to be sued. There are so many lawsuits over this issue right now, and that costs money too. It’s unfortunate that it’s had to come to that, and I hate to even have to mention it, but it is a real issue a lot of businesses are having to deal with. Even if they win the case, they still have to pay the lawyers. If accessibility were a priority from the beginning, it probably wouldn’t have gone that far.

Bottom line, accessibility should be a priority because of, well, the “bottom line”. 😀

How can a business or organization ensure they are compliant with today’s digital accessibility regulations?

The way I see it, there are only two options:

  1. Their development teams could spend countless hours learning how accessibility works, at the code level, on the platform(s) they’re targeting. They would need to learn what accessibility standards exist, what they require, and how to translate those requirements into design and code. Accessibility is a code thing, and it takes a lot of experience with code and with accessibility to know how to build accessible websites or apps. There are “solutions” out there that claim they can do this for you, but the truth is they can’t. More often than not they actually create more problems than they solve. So the ideal way to make sure everything is accessible is to know accessibility inside-out-and-backwards. The more developers who can do that, the better.
  2. They could work with us, our Digital Accessibility Solutions department at Lighthouse Works. We offer compliance testing and accessibility consulting services, and our reports will actually walk programmers through the code where accessibility problems exist. We explain why the code is inaccessible and how they can fix it. I realize I’m extremely biased here, but the truth is, we designed the report template with developers like me in mind. If I didn’t know accessibility, a report like ours is exactly what I would want – not a bunch of obscure specs and cryptic legalese, but actionable recommendations on how to improve my code. And we don’t stop there. When the code has been fixed, and the site or app passes our tests, we offer a seal to let users know! A site seal from us tells users this business/organization cares about accessibility – cares about them – and that they are compliant with accessibility standards.

What are some things that people can do to help raise awareness on the importance of accessibility?

I like to take on crazy tech challenges. Like the time I used a Raspberry Pi (a do-it-yourself computer-building kit) as my only personal computer for a month. Or the time I learned to code for retro systems like the Commodore 64 and MS-DOS. Or, as a more work-related example, the time I tried to overcome software inaccessibility through scripting. Sometimes, these challenges lead to amazing discoveries (like the scripting thing, which is still benefitting our Call Center team); other times, the challenges turn into hobbies (like retro game programming); but more often, they’re just a good laugh and I forget all about them. But no matter the outcome, I’m always glad I tried.

So my answer to this question would be, take on a crazy tech challenge involving accessibility! Maybe you could try to use your computer with the mouse unplugged for a week. Believe it or not, it is possible! Or take it up a notch, turn off your monitor, and fire up a screen reader! Every decent computer has one (and some have more than one). It may be scary at first, but if you resist the urge to turn on the monitor or hook up the mouse, you’ll learn so much about how people with disabilities use computers.

I get not everyone is as into computers as I am, so here’s another option: turn a feature called “audio description” on in your Disney Plus, Netflix or other streaming service, and watch a show with your eyes closed. Yes, people who are blind can enjoy movies and TV! I love described movies and shows, and these streaming services are constantly adding more audio description. A couple favorites of mine that have audio description are “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” and “The Mandalorian”. You can always turn audio description off if you want later.

Here’s the thing: if you do this, people will notice. I wasn’t sure if this question was asking about ways to raise your own awareness or promote accessibility with others, but these ideas accomplish both. I think it would be a great conversation starter, if that’s what you’re trying to do. I recently introduced my family to described movies, totally by accident, just because I have that feature enabled in my Disney Plus settings. At first they thought it was kind of weird, but over time they realized it helped me “see” things I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Now, they actually appreciate it for themselves! And they are fully sighted!

What are some things or changes anyone can make on a regular basis to ensure digital accessibility?

Most people don’t write software, but digital accessibility isn’t just for programmers. If you create any kind of digital content – documents, spreadsheets, presentations, whatever – there are all kinds of things you can do.

Run accessibility checkers on your documents.

In modern versions of Microsoft Office, you can go to the File tab, then press the “check for issues” button, and then the “check accessibility” menu item. This gives you a (hopefully empty) list of problems and links explaining how to fix them. Adobe has an accessibility checker for PDF files too. Most word processors and other tools should have this feature. If yours does, use it; if it doesn’t, you might want to consider switching to one that does.

Avoid “faking it”. Use the Ribbon or menu bar instead.

One common problem I’ve seen in documents is people doing things like:

  • Creating fake headings by making text big and bold
  • Creating fake tables by inserting a bunch of tabs or spaces between “columns”
  • Creating fake line spacing by inserting two or more line breaks
  • Creating fake text spacing by putting a space between each letter (L I K E T H I S)
  • Creating fake lists using pictures or special characters like “•”

These are all very common things that everybody has done (myself included). But the problem with “hacks” like this is the end result lacks the correct “tagging” (code that tells screen readers what’s a heading or a list or a table or whatever). And using spaces or tabs in weird ways causes screen readers to misread things. But what’s great about modern office software is it has controls that do. For example, in Microsoft office:

  • Pressing Control-Alt-1 (or Control-Alt-2, 3, etc.0 creates headings. This can also be done from the “Styles” section of the “Home” tab (or “Format Text” tab in Outlook).
  • There’s an “Insert” tab with a “table” option. This creates a real table with actual rows and columns, and you don’t even have to worry about them “lining up”.
  • The “Format” tab has all kinds of spacing options, for lines and space between characters and indents and other things.
  • And the same is true for lists – the “Home” tab of the Ribbon has a place to insert lists too.

All this can be done without making the document look wrong. You can style everything however you like, and the tagging will be right-on.

I could go on…

There are all kinds of other things document authors can do, like:

  • Not using images of text
  • Labeling images (adding “alt text”)
  • And I could go on

But this post is already much longer than I meant it to be, so I’ll have to end it here. But if you’ve made it this far, you’ve already done the most important part: you’re here. You made a conscious effort to take the time to learn more about accessibility. There’s an old saying that “knowledge is power”; I hope this has empowered you in some small way to make the world around you a better place. Thank you.