Learning first-hand why accessibility is important

This week, several members of the Digital Publishing team, including myself, went on the first of 2 scheduled visits to the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC) in Neath.

The visit was incredibly educational. It drove home just how many things I take for granted that are a real challenge for users with a disability. I always thought I had a good understanding of accessibility principles, but seeing accessibility in action taught me there’s a lot still to learn.

Visual impairment

We spent most of the morning talking to Tara, who is registered blind. She browsed our website using NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA), a free open source screenreader programme, similar to the commercially available and popular Job Access With Speech (JAWS).

The first thing that struck me was how involved a process browsing was for Tara. She would “tab” her way through a page using keyboard shortcuts that searched by header. If that wasn’t working for her, she would search by link. The screenreader would read out every instance it found, including the kind of page furniture (headers, footers and so on) that I would normally ignore.

I was particularly keen to get Tara’s perspective on our content, as the use of visual elements such as charts is an integral part of our digital product. Having never seen how a screenreader works before, I didn’t have a strong idea how data displayed in this way could be made accessible.

The most significant thing I learned from Tara was that, for her to be able to access the same information in a chart as a sighted user, she needs a fully accessible alternative. Alt text with a generic overview of the chart but no actual data simply isn’t good enough. As a consumer, she should be able to access the exact same information as anyone else. If she can’t, then she will leave the website and look elsewhere.

For her, the best option was a correctly formatted table. Spreadsheets were a bad fit in her experience, as she’d never been able to find a way of automatically reading columns. She also demonstrated the importance of correct formatting; if a table wasn’t tagged properly then each figure would be preceded by “Column 4, Row 6” rather than the correct names.

It is attention to detail that makes all the difference to visually impaired users. Another example is punctuation. I hadn’t fully considered how that would work for screenreaders. Tara told us that while most screenreading technology has default punctuation settings, many users turn it off. This means that a mathematical symbol like a plus or minus sign would be missed out entirely, so it is better to write out the word rather than the symbol in your content. Now, it just so happens that this what our style guide advises anyway, but I now have a deeper understanding of why that particular style decision has been made.

Ultimately, NVDA is just one brand of screenreader. Tara stressed that there are several packages available and each works slightly differently, which highlights the need to test content on multiple programs.

Learning difficulties

We sat down with Jonathan, a user who had a learning difficulty. Clarity and consistency were really important to prevent him getting confused, particularly for navigation. A seemingly small thing like different pages on the same website having different colours (like our home page and our methodology landing page) was really off-putting for him.

Jonathan didn’t mind the length of some of our bulletins, but what was important was that the paragraphs weren’t too long, and there was plenty of white space around the text. He strongly felt that acronyms and abbreviations should always be explained, with even something really common like GDP being written out in full (“gross domestic product”) for the user.

In terms of charts, Jonathan had no problem with them as long as they were clearly presented. He found annotations useful in this regard. However, he did not get on well with stacked bar charts.

At the beginning of our conversation, Jonathan said he disliked moving images, like Flash or a carousel. However, he quite liked Visual.ONS’ recent Basket of Goods timeline, as the functionality allowed him to be in control of the motion and images.

Hard of hearing

The final tester we spent time with was William, who was hard of hearing. He found the website easy to navigate, as we don’t have anything he finds problematic like videos or audio content.

William placed a great deal of emphasis on the need to provide either an email address or mobile number as a “Contact us” option, as a landline number would be no use to him.

Prior to this conversation, I was completely unaware that not all deaf people use British Sign Language (BSL) or another equivalent. Some use body language and Makaton. William himself relied a lot on lip reading.

What we will do next

Our team came away with reams of notes, and our User Researcher John Lewis in particular was able to draw up an extensive list of areas which require further investigation.

For our next visit

We only had so much time and didn’t get to sit with all the testers on the day. There will be a second Digital Publishing visit to DAC at the beginning of September, where we will be observing the following accessibility testing:

  • voice activation
  • colour contract for dyslexic users
  • keyboard only for users with mobility issues
  • screenreading for mobile devices

I’m always keen to hear different perspectives on accessibility, so if you have any insights you wish to share please drop me an email at paul.mcgarvey@ons.gov.uk

One comment on “Learning first-hand why accessibility is important”

  1. Reblogged this on Page Count and commented:
    My blog for ONS on the Digital Publishing team’s recent visit to the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC).

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