Well meant is not well done – the importance of being a reliable accessibility ally!

In a world where people are becoming increasingly aware of issues around diversity and inclusivity, it makes sense that we want to do better. We want to do more to help people feel welcome, and we want to highlight those things that have been causing problems, or those beliefs that need to change.

I have seen some fantastic examples of this in action recently.

After some conversations about accessibility, I found that one of my business owner friends had gone to one of her suppliers with a request that they do better in terms of accessibility for screenreader users. It was great to hear how they’ve taken the first feedback on board and turned it into real action. This makes me happy!

It also makes me happy when I see people on my pilot course taking what they’ve been learning, from me, both generally and in the course, and putting this into practice in their businesses. This is helpful for me and for any other customers who come across their products or services.

Through inclusive action in their businesses and spreading awareness of what they’ve learned, they reach a wider audience, but they also lighten the load for people like me. There was a post in a Facebook group recently, and another business owner friend had already suggested how it could be more accessible – before I’d even seen it.

This is what being a good ally is all about.

I hope I can do the same for members of other parts of the community. I may not share their same access needs, or experience exclusion in the same ways, but if I know what helps them, and similarly what causes a problem, I can be an inclusivity ally to them too.

The danger

The danger is that in our eagerness to do something good, we can end up spreading misinformation if we’re not careful.

I wouldn’t usually think to write about this, but I’ve seen three instances of it in the last week. Two were on Twitter, and one was an article that someone forwarded to me because she thought I’d find it interesting. I did find it interesting, but not as an example of inclusivity!

I’m not talking about people just not knowing the most up-to-date information. The world of accessibility is changing all the time. Words go out of fashion. Technology is updated, so that things which weren’t possible in the past suddenly become possible. New technology or tools are developed. Companies bring in new features and updates.

Even in my own training, Some things stay the same, whereas others need to be updated.

But I’m not talking about that.

The three examples I came across were general statements about what screenreaders can’t do.

“Screenreaders can’t read PDFS” – retweeted lots of times, but it’s not true. They can’t read inaccessible PDFs, but if the PDF is created well, it’s not inaccessible. I use PDFs in my courses or for invoices etc all the time.

“Screenreaders can’t read hashtags if you don’t capitalise them.” This is more about my need for exact communication, which isn’t blindness-related, but still bothers me when I see things like this.

Uncapitalised hashtags don’t read well, and sometimes I have to spell the word letter for letter to work out what it means, but that’s not the same as not being able to read it. I can’t read hashtags in a language I don’t speak. Uncapitalised ones just make my life harder. Ultimately I prefer it when people don’t make my life harder!

The last one is a bit specific and it wasn’t in English, but it was basically saying that screenreaders can’t read a certain type of punctuation properly. Except some of them can, including my own, and there are a lot of customisable options in a screenreader. So some screenreaders, if set up in a specific way, can’t read the thing. But others can.

If we help to spread a message that you can’t use PDFs, uncapitalized hashtags are unreadable, or a certain type of punctuation shouldn’t be used ever – that gives people the wrong idea. It makes the job of creating accessible content even harder than it needs to be. It’s not the intention, but it creates a lot of extra work and expectations unnecessarily.

Why do these things spread?

Sometimes people struggle to express things clearly. They know what they mean, and they assume everyone else has the same level of knowledge. This can lead to misunderstandings.

Sometimes a respected person shares something, and their followers trust them, so they share it too.

Sometimes people such as screenreader users themselves make statements about how accessible things are (or aren’t), but the truth is more that they don’t know how to do it, or how to get the screenreader to do what they want it to.

Sometimes people just don’t have the most up-to-date information.

So what can we do?

Check before you share

It’s like everything else. There’s so much stuff on the internet. Some of it is useful. Some of it isn’t. If you’re not sure, either don’t share, or find someone who can tell you either way.

Avoid sweeping statements

Some things are facts. But often we’re talking about big groups of people, who are influenced by so many other things and not just the one small thing they have in common. Especially if you’re talking about what people want, need, or feel, it’s better to say

… people may

Some … people

And then you won’t annoy all the people who don’t fit that definition.

Take a bit more time

I don’t want to single this person out, but when I queried one of the statements mentioned above, the reply I got was along the lines of “I know that, but I didn’t have enough characters to explain it properly”. Take the time for that extra paragraph or that extra tweet if it means you can avoid spreading misinformation.

Find trusted experts in the field

If you’re interested in a specific topic, find some good sites or people who share information about it so that you can learn from them.

Final thoughts

I know it’s hard sometimes. I don’t want to discourage people from sharing or helping – because we need the world to make changes and become more inclusive.

Even when it comes to recognised organisations, some of them are rejected by the people whom they claim to represent, because the people don’t feel that the organisation is representing them fairly.

Where you can, go to the source. If you want to know about people with a certain type of access need, go to someone with that access need, not some information written about them by a third party.

Of course it’s good to share and raise awareness, but equally it’s better to be sure of what you’re sharing. Otherwise it ends up being like those posts that keep doing the rounds on Facebook. People just share because they want to be helpful, whereas a bit of research would show they aren’t true.

Find out more

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If you’re interested in finding out more about accessibility, you may also be interested in my accessibility course.

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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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: