Accessibility: How digital agencies can evolve to meet AODA requirements

We've recently formed an in-house Accessibility task force — find out how we got here, and what we’re doing to make great experiences for all.

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By Steve Kerr, Front End Developer

December 09, 2015

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In January 2014, the AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) came into effect. For many Ontarian companies with an online presence, this means if they haven't already started considering how people access their content, they must start now. WebAIM, a non-profit organization dedicated to web accessibility, estimates that as many as 20% of people have some type of disability. A significant portion of these people have issues using computers or the Internet, and there are millions of websites that are currently unusable for people with disabilities. This is a consequence of many in the web design and development world approaching accessibility as an obstacle or something to try to work around, but it doesn't have to be this way. 

A common test for colorblindness

Color blindness is just one of many issues that need to be considered for the visually impaired. It is important to ensure the design allows for all users to be able to read the content on a page.

After attending a talk at a recent FITC event by Andrea Ong and George Zamfir, I learned how Telus was able to achieve an attractive, user friendly, and accessible site by pushing for accessibility from the UX perspective. Andrea discussed her desire as a Senior Interaction Designer to advocate for a new corporate site that would be a great user experience for all of their customers. One key take away from this presentation: accessibility is a by-product of good UX. By taking accessibility into consideration from the early planning stages, Telus was able to ensure that the UX would be optimized at the outset for every user of their site.

A stop sign without the typical color and text

A stop sign without proper labelling is not nearly as useful for someone with Protanopia type color blindness (image has simulated protanopia type color blindness). The addition of text to visual images can make a world of difference to the users of your website.

An approach like this not only helps the end user, but also everyone involved in bringing a project to life. Wireframes that outline an accessible website help the interface designer, who can then translate them into accessible and pleasing designs. These designs make it easier for the developers to ensure that the user experience is preserved during the development phase. This also allows an easier testing process for the QA analyst, who can clearly see the purpose and requirements of each accessible process, from the wireframes to the final product.

If accessibility is not factored in during the planning, wireframe, design and development phase, the last line of defense is the QA analyst. If QA finds a key piece of design or functionality doesn’t meet accessibility criteria, it begins a very long and painful process. Each accessibility problem must be traced back to where the oversight occurred. If it was in development, the component needs to be refactored and go through QA again. If the oversight was in design, it may need to be discussed with the client for further signoff, then refactored in development, and then put through the QA process again. If the oversight occurred in the planning or wireframe phase, it could result in new designs, new client sign-off, new development, and another trip through QA. As you can see, the earlier in the project timeline that accessibility is factored in, the less work for all.

Accessibility issues can happen at any and every step in the process, with varying severity. It’s important that every role on the team is familiar with accessibility, so these issues are caught as early as possible. 
W3C provides a helpful General Overview” table describing the responsibilities associated with each project team role for meeting WCAG criteriaAn important takeaway is that the responsibility for building an accessible site doesn’t fall to just one role – it falls to everyone. It's important to have every team member involved in the project at an early stage, so they can share their knowledge of their responsibilities and catch potential conflicts before they go too far in the development lifecycle.

Introducing the ecentricarts accessibility team

ecentricarts has a history of building great accessible websites, but accessibility standards are in a state of constant evolution. As web professionals we must strive to be up to date on accessibility best practices, and to ensure we deliver standards-compliant solutions. This can be a challenge, as the AODA requirements are still very new, the WCAG can be very difficult to get through, and although there are vast amounts of reading on the internet, it can be exhausting to sift through and analyze it all to see which solutions are best in class.

Our desire to tackle these challenges and become leaders in web accessibility led us to create the ‘ecentricarts Accessibility Team’ (EAT). Backed by the management team, EAT has at least one representative from every role in the company and all levels of accessibility experience. Our mandate: to become more familiar with best practices and the requirements of the AODA, and spread that knowledge to the rest of the company. After all, each member of the ecentricarts team has legal — and moral — responsibilities to build great, user friendly products.

The first step we’re taking is creating accessibility check lists. These check lists focus on accessibility requirements and considerations for various components that recur across our projects, such as video players (including the required captions, transcripts and audio descriptions), proper use of images, tooltips, carousels, and navigation. (These are key components of many websites, and thus something that everyone in the industry needs to become intimately familiar with.) In order to provide a smoother introduction to the accessible concepts — and their restrictions — the check lists are meant to provide a general idea of the rules that need to be followed, as well as highlight potential difficulties in implementing an accessible product.

A braille device for mobile phones

One of many types of braille displays available for mobile devices. It’s easy to forget that millions of people rely on devices such as this every day. There’s no reason to exclude them when you’re building a site. We can build a visually pleasing site while still making the experience pleasant for everybody.

These lists are important for every role in the company. For example, UX needs to be aware of the challenges that millions of people with accessibility needs have with banner and image carousels, and developers need to know how to create as pleasant and accessible an experience as possible if carousels need to be implemented. This understanding between roles is very important, as it creates a much more solid and maintainable product in the end.

The second step we are taking is the dissemination of this information to everyone in the company. As a digital agency, we need to keep up with all the latest technology to continue to provide the best product possible. Technologies and best practices can change rapidly, and it can be almost impossible to keep up without process in place. The second phase goal of the accessibility team is to provide this process.

By having regular lunch and learns combined with interactive exercises, we hope to make each person in each role in the company:

  1. Understand the limits of those with disabilities
  2. Experience websites with the same limitations millions of people struggle with every day
  3. Learn how to accommodate every user
  4. Develop techniques to solve these problems
  5. Understand our legal and moral responsibilities
  6. Learn how the overall process improves with this knowledge
  7. Build a better and more accessible product that provides the same experience to all users

The ecentricarts Accessibility Team was formed just recently, so we are currently still in Phase 1. Each week we’re sitting down as a team and working through some of the finer details of each component that we have identified. The team is becoming much more knowledgeable about why these issues are important. We look forward to tackling new issues every week, and continuing to evolve our accessibility best practices and expertise. The most valuable part of this initiative, however, is that it is helping us to change our culture -- and by extension to influence our clients as well -- to be more inclusive of all users. We'll be sure to keep you posted.