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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