The three levels of online accessibility

I navigate the online world with a standard laptop, a smartphone, and a screenreader – something that reads aloud the text that is on my screen.

One of my goals at EwK Services is to bring what can be some very dry and technical documentation to life by using real examples and everyday anecdotes about how getting this stuff wrong affects real people.

This isn’t a recognised way of dividing things up. You won’t find it in any official guidelines. But I find it helps when I’m trying to explain the extent to which online accessibility issues affect me and others.

1. Accessible, with a good user experience

These are my favourite websites. I can use them with no problem. I never need to ask for help. I can accomplish any task using my screenreader that a sighted user could accomplish with a mouse. I know exactly what I’m clicking – all graphics and buttons is labelled correctly and there are no barriers for me to overcome.

These sites keep me coming back. I know their owners care about me as a customer because they make sure that I have equal access to their site.

There may be one or two little things that could be better, but generally I have no complaints, and I’m likely to be loyal to a site like this ,rather than to shop around on other sites that may be more of a hassle to use.

The only thing I’d add here is that we can have web standards, but everyone has different needs. I am not affected by how good the colour contrast is, but other people are. I might be confused by an unlabelled button, but someone with a bit of vision might be able to work out what the graphic means.

Also, sometimes the user experience is as good as the skills of the person behind the keyboard. Someone might claim that an app isn’t accessible, even though many other access technology users are using it regularly and successfully. There is probably a training need here, and there may always be people, particularly those who are less familiar or confident with their software, who might try to tell you that something isn’t accessible, when the issue is that this individual hasn’t figured out how to use their own tech.

So, the issue might have something to do with the user experience, or it might not. You shouldn’t have to be a power user of access technology to have a good experience, but if one person tells you something about your site is inaccessible and other people haven’t had a problem with it, it may not be something you need to fix.

Also, there are many other combinations of browsers, devices, versions of software, and types of assistive technology that people may use.

There will always be a degree of subjectivity here when it comes to what’s an accessible and intuitive experience, but every barrier you remove brings you one step closer to a more accessible experience for more people.

2. Not completely accessible, but not unusable either

This is the grey area between the great sites and the horrible ones from my access technology user perspective, and it really depends why I’m on the site as to how much time and effort I’ll put in to figuring out a way to make things work for me. These can be workarounds like

  • You can only do that particular task on the app, not the site.
  • Click the first unlabelled button to do X, or “unlabelled3” to do Y. (Not intuitive, but consistent and it gets the job done.
  • Use one of the more obscure report formats, because you won’t be able to read the standard one.
  • Export the data, because the graphical presentation won’t work for you.
  • There is a button/an input field that appears in an obscure place, usually right at the bottom, and you won’t be able to continue unless you find it, interact with it, and move on with your day. It isn’t intuitive, but once you’ve done it a couple of times, you know what to expect and where it will be.
  • This site doesn’t follow the standard practices for the use of headings – something you’ll want to read will be above the main heading where you won’t expect it – but if you know it’s there, you can easily navigate to it with your keyboard.
  • These are all things that can, and really should, be fixed from an accessibility point of you. I wouldn’t advise anyone to create a site that results in access technology users having to do any of them. But my point is, they are all tactics I employ on sites that are important to me in some way. Less familiar screenreader users might not figure it out, and to be honest, nobody should have to click unlabelled buttons just to find out what they do. I usually get assistance with that the first time because I don’t want to find out by chance.

    The decision about whether I persevere with sites in this category is based on my motivation to use it. If it’s a service, I’m more likely to persevere and try and find a work-around. It’s a good investment of my time, because it’s something I’ll need to come back to. Ultimately it would be better if the site owner fixed the glitches so that I didn’t have to, but realistically these things don’t happen overnight and in the meantime I have things that need to get done.

    I do point things out when I think companies will listen, but I have a life to lead, businesses to run, a home to manage – I only have 24 hours in the day and I don’t have time to point out to everyone when they’re making my life harder with their web design. I have to prioritise.

    So, if it’s a one-time purchase and the process of buying feels like too much effort, I’ll probably go elsewhere. If it’s a service that I’m likely to use more regularly, I’ll have a bit more patience with it – on a good day. But this does mean that I’m doing more work than a non-disabled visitor to the site would have to, and that’s not really fair. People who already love what you do or know about your products might stick around, whereas others may look for the path of least resistance, which in this case will mean buying the product or service elsewhere.

    3. The inaccessible sites

    Here it doesn’t matter how well a person can use their access technology software. There is something about the site that prevents screenreader users from doing things such as logging in, using some of the functionality, or completing tasks. These sites are annoying. They are frustrating. They are basically turning people like me away.

    Wherever I can, I will avoid them and take my business somewhere else.

    The only time I will stick with it or go and get help is if there is no other way – some official form that I need to submit, something that I really, really want that can only be obtained from the inaccessible site, or something that would be more hassle for me if I didn’t use it. For example I use a service for one of my businesses, and although I’d like nothing more than to not give them another penny because they made their site inaccessible overnight, I know that the work I’d need to do to change this particular service provider would be annoying, so it’s easier to get a bit of help on the few occasions when I need to use the inaccessible interface.

    Usually I just avoid them though, because the experience makes me more dependent on others than should be necessary. This can be a pain to organise, make me feel dependent, and I don’t really want to support businesses that don’t care about making an inclusive experience for all of their customers.

    In which category would your site appear?

    So, do you know where your site would be? Would it be in the first category, that I’d love to visit, in the second, where I’d need to figure out some things that fell short of the accessibility best practice standards but at a push I could still use it, or are you in the third category, because you have features that make the site completely inaccessible to a screenreader user?

    If you’re not sure, I offer screenreader accessibility usability consultancy and would be happy to talk through the details with you. I also have a free factsheet about some of the biggest problems I encounter on websites, social media platforms, in training materials, and at events. To find out more about my consultancy work or the free factsheet, you can visit my accessibility page.





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The F word in online accessibility – frustration!

I’m not a writer who often talks about feelings – whether I’m writing articles for my business blog or my personal one. Of course I have feelings, but a lot of the time it doesn’t occur to me to share. That’s not just when I’m writing articles, it’s pretty much the same in real life. It’s a need to know kind of thing, and most people don’t need to know. Especially the more negative things. I don’t mind so much if people know when I’m happy.

So when it comes to writing about problems, I tend to focus on the facts. Problems and solutions. What makes it difficult for a screenreader user to use a website? How can people make their social media posts more accessible? Actionable tips. Explanations. Cold hard facts. But the thing is, we’re working and interacting with people, and they do have feelings.

Reading this post frustrated: the F word of disability” made me stop to think. Have a read about the research if you’re interested – even as someone involved with this subject every day, I found some compelling arguments that I hadn’t even considered before.

I don’t relate to all of the emotions listed in the post, which evaluates feedback of disabled consumers talking about inaccessible websites, but I nodded my head at a few of them.

Frustrated – yes, I’ve definitely been there. I sometimes even make it to the check-out, and then some inaccessible web element means I can’t make my purchase.

Angry – yes, I’ve been there too, especially if I really wanted the thing, or if the thing is on sale and likely to run out before I can get some assistance. Bonus points go to the wonderful individual who takes a perfectly accessible website and breaks it with the next update – you can read my thoughts about careless updates here.

Stressed – yes, that too, especially if I don’t have much time, and sorting out the problem eats into the time that I don’t have.

Anxious – not so much, but I can see how this would apply to someone who is relying on the thing, and they can’t get the thing due to some website accessibility problem.

Less independent – well yes, because if you have to ask someone to do the simplest task for you, an example today was selecting a date on an inaccessible date picker widget before I could continue what I was doing, it does make you feel less independent – because you are indeed less independent.

And the list goes on.

I don’t want this to become a rant into all that’s wrong with the world in terms of online accessibility, but I think it’s worth highlighting that there are emotions involved when people can’t use a service or website that others can use without any problems.

Many disabled people, and certainly many blind people, use online shopping or online booking sites more often because when designed well, they do offer a sense of freedom and accessibility that going to a physical shop often does not.

Our fridge freezer broke last weekend, but once we got the new one, I was able to do a new grocery shop to restock it, quickly and easily. It would have been a nightmare if I’d had to go to the shop on my own, locate the things I wanted with “help” that may or may not have been helpful, and then get the goods home without a car. Online shopping made that a 10-minute task for me, and for that I’m grateful. The alternative can be more costly, in time, money, and nerves.

If you’re a business owner, having an inaccessible site can result in money being left on the table, because although sometimes we get help – my fiancé gets involved with my online shopping habit from time to time – often people just choose not to make the purchase.

Sometimes I just think “oh well, I’ll go and buy it somewhere else”, and the competition gets the business. I tend to be a more loyal customer too – I get a lot of my cosmetics from one store because I know their site is accessible. If I know they stock the thing I want, I’m less likely to try a brand’s own website, because it’s often hit and miss as to how well their site is designed.

But it’s about more than that. Every purchase that isn’t made because of some accessibility problem has a person sitting behind that keyboard. They may be thinking “screw it, I didn’t need the thing anyway”, or they may be feeling any one of these other emotions.

It goes the other way too – when I find something accessible that works really well, it makes me happy, and I’ll probably share the experience with my friends without even being prompted too. Free marketing for the site owner! I might even blog about it on my private blog!

Much of what I do at EwK Services is to help business owners see the real impact they have, and the massive changes for the better they can set in motion when they start thinking about accessibility.

It’s not just something to do because it’s a box to tick. Despite the challenges in an increasingly litigious world, it shouldn’t just be about putting the right measures in place so that nobody tries to take legal action against you. There are real benefits to having accessible websites that go far beyond that. Because for every terrible experience I have, I also have good ones that make me feel empowered, independent, on an equal footing with everyone else, and just able to get on with life like everyone else who can use the site. If you have a website, you also have the power to have that kind of effect on someone’s day!

So please – if you can, don’t be the cause of the F word in accessibility – Frustration! To be fair, certainly in my case, the frustration can quickly lead to the other F word as well!

Get in touch

EwK Services offers consultations in a number of areas to ensure that your products and services are accessible to blind people (specifically screenreader users and Braille readers). Visit the accessibility page For more information about these services or how else I can help you and your business.

If you’d like to contact me or sign up for the monthly EwK Services newsletter, which will also contain links to new blog posts, please use this contact form:





Braille signs and accessibility – why these signs didn’t help me find my way around

Not all blind people are able to read Braille, but for those of us who are, having information in Braille can be really useful. I particularly like to find it on hotel bedrooms. This means I don’t have to meticulously count the doors (no good if there’s a group of people or a trolley of towels in the way), and it’s a sure way to stop you accidentally trying to break into someone else’s room.

However, putting up signs in Braille is not just like translating the sign into another language. There are a few more things to consider. A recent trip to a hotel really brought this home to me, so I thought I’d share my experiences here.

Problem 1 – I don’t know about the signs

Some blind people have a degree of sight and they may notice the signs. They may be travelling with someone as I was. It was my fiancé who first alerted me to the signs in the hotel, and he’s pointed out other random signs on our travels too. Signs about safety, opening times, toilets, or how to use a piece of equipment. The problem is, if he hadn’t been there, I would have walked straight past them, completely unaware that they were there, which rather defeats the object of having the sign there in the first place.

Signs don’t work for me in the same way. They don’t grab my attention. They have to be pointed out.

So, if you’re thinking about putting Braille signs up on your premises, there needs to be some training too. You or your staff have no way of knowing whether a blind person is able to read Braille, but if you think that they might, for example because they have a white cane or a guide dog, it’s worth them explaining that there are Braille signs around the venue. Otherwise your shiny new signs may just go unnoticed!

Problem 2 – I can’t reach that!

Now we come to the three problems that I found with the signs at the hotel. I’m not looking to make an example of this particular hotel, but I thought the issues illustrate my point.

After we discovered the door numbers, my fiancé started showing me other signs – but there were a few issues with them. We did point out the problems to reception so that they could get them put right, but apparently the signs had been around for a number of years and nobody had commented on them before. See problem 1!

At 1.55m, I’m not very tall. But the point of Braille signs is that you read them with your fingers. We found one that was so high above my head that I could only reach the bottom of it. This is a problem! Ok, many people are taller than me, but a building can’t just cater to tall blind people!

I understand the thinking behind it – you can get away with putting printed signs higher up – but different rules apply when your sign has to be read with fingers.

Problem 3 – the writing is upside down

I couldn’t figure out what the writing said at first, but it was in fact upside down. The rest of the sign was not – all the arrows were pointing in the right directions and the printed lettering was right, but the Braille text had been printed upside down! Maybe the person creating the sign had been watching Stranger Things and wanted to send Braille readers to the Upside Down? Or maybe they just didn’t check. Either way, nobody was aware of the error.

Problem 4 – the text is incorrect

On these particular signs, I could read the printed text too because it was in raised letters. So I could tell that the Braille letters did not say the same as the rest of the sign. The printed letters were correct – the Braille was not and might have sent someone in circles looking for the room when they were actually right outside it!

Conclusion

I’ve no doubt that the hotel wanted to do something good that made their venue more accessible to disabled people – and this is a good thing. I’ve no doubt that they also spent a lot of money on those signs because they were printed on durable plastic, which I’m sure wasn’t cheap.

The part that was missing here was quality assurance checking – making sure that people for whom the signs were intended could actually use them, and that the company had paid for a quality product. If there had been some kind of strategy that had included user testing, or someone who explained some of the things you need to think about when putting up Braille signs, all of these problems could have been avoided.

EwK Services offers consultations in a number of areas to ensure that your products and services are accessible to blind people (specifically screenreader users and Braille readers). Visit the accessibility page For more information about these services or how else I can help you and your business.

You can also use this form to sign up for my monthly newsletter, or to get your free copy of “common barriers to accessibility” in terms of websites, products, social media, training materials, or events.





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Accessibility – it’s not enough that your website started off being accessible

The worst time to ask for feedback is the time immediately after you’ve annoyed someone!

Have you ever had that experience? You’ve been kept waiting on hold in a queue that went on for what feels like hours, or you’ve had the worst customer service ever, and then you get a request to give feedback about how satisfied you were with the service? Sometimes people are so annoyed, that they do in fact give feedback – and it’s rarely positive.

I had a similar experience yesterday evening. I’m not going to name and shame the site here. I do sometimes use social media or my personal blog to highlight problems and try and get them fixed, but this blog is more about good practice. I will however explained what happened, because I think it’s important.

The site is one that I’ve used before. It’s not the most accessible, but I can get most things done without too many work-arounds. Recently they decided to make some changes and update the page I wanted to use.

I wasn’t aware of any improvements. Maybe it does look nicer. As a blind user, I can’t comment on that. What I did notice however, was that only two of the buttons that I might want to use had graphic labels. As luck would have it, the one that I wanted to click had not been labelled correctly. So I had a 50% chance between unlabelled0 and unlabelled1.

Would you click unlabelled buttons if you didn’t know what they would do?

I didn’t want to take my chances, so I asked someone to take a look and tell me which one I needed. I can remember for next time if I need to use that page again, but I shouldn’t have to. Sighted visitors to the page know what the buttons do.

Apart from the obvious frustration, there are two issues here:

1. Inconsistency

Someone on the team clearly knows how to label buttons correctly, because the other two had graphic labels that my screenreader could read. In the same way that site owners want consistent branding and use of colour across their site, consistent web design and coding is important too, especially on the same page.

If none of the buttons had been labelled correctly, I might assume that the person designing it didn’t know how to. But that’s clearly not the case here.

2. Updates shouldn’t be a step backwards for accessibility

Previously, the buttons on this page did have correct graphics labels, and these somehow got lost or overlooked when the page was updated. This actually makes the experience worse for me now.

It’s easily done if you have more than one person working on a site, or if someone inherits a site that was designed by someone else, but it’s really important not to lose the accessibility features and basic good practice that were already built into the site.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you can’t see a problem as someone didn’t bother to label a page control properly that nobody will notice.

In terms of the site in question, it’s not the first time that I’ve flagged an accessibility issue, it’s been fixed, and then the changes were lost in the next update.

This is a strong argument for why accessible and inclusive design should be on the agenda as a matter of course, not an afterthought whereby people have to fix all the things that get broken with an update.

Then they wanted my feedback!

Directly under the unlabelled buttons was a request for user feedback about the new design. I was happy to oblige and I hope that my feedback will be acted upon. I’d still have preferred it if I hadn’t had to spend time tracking down someone who could help me with something that previously hadn’t been an issue.

I’m fortunate. I do have someone who helps me with visual tasks in my businesses, but it’s an unfair and unrealistic assumption that blind people always have someone close by that can help them out. I don’t have help full-time, and if I want to use your site in the middle of the night when nobody is around, I should have that freedom just as any other visitor does!

Take-away

People are creatures of habit and generally we’re not fans of change. This is even more so if you break someone’s user experience with your next update, so it’s worth making sure that anything you’re planning to do won’t have a negative impact on the accessibility of your site.

Get in touch

If you’d like to contact me or sign up for the monthly EwK Services newsletter, which will also contain links to new blog posts, please use this contact form: