Removing Barriers to Your Websites and Software


Sand in the desertBarriers, walls, and division tactics may appear to be the new society norm, but simmering underneath are companies and people throwing open their doors to everyone wanting to work, learn, and contribute in positive ways.

Not everyone has the desire to plug in to life. Sometimes it takes a traumatic event to push past what you know and believe. For those of you who develop software and online apps, design websites or create digital marketing strategies, one area you are not often taught enough about is how to break down barriers and open up full access and reach. It’s not something taken seriously unless an event occurs, like a lawsuit or public customer complaint.

Typically, from the first team gathering to discuss project requirements, there is a strong chance that when it comes to who the product will be designed for, the topic is glossed over and chunked into “our users” and “our target market” classifications that are left without defining and open to interpretation later. After all, it costs more money to create user personas and develop mental models. It also is much easier to think about performance on browsers, computer devices and search engines, rather than performance with people. Especially people with disabilities. Especially people who are thought to be undesirable. And especially people who are purposely excluded and discriminated against.

There is rarely someone sitting at that table who knows enough about accessibility or discrimination to discuss it. Even the person wearing eye glasses or contacts, or the colorblind UI engineer, or the dyslexic programmer or the content writer wearing a wrist brace to help with carpel tunnel pain; each of these team members is more than likely not trained in accessibility for websites and software. They may be unaware of the need to design for specific needs and brainstorm even more potential ones that can be turned into revenue opportunities.

Why Should We Remove Barriers to Access?

What is a barrier? What does a barrier feel like? Who are you preventing from using your website? Does this matter?

The most commonly asked questions I’m asked as a consultant are:

“Why should I care about accessibility?”

“Does my website need to be accessible?”

“Am I supposed to include disabled people?”

In most cases I explain what accessibility is first. Previous life experience for owners, especially for companies that have a store and want an online version of it, is that accessibility is “just” for people who are blind, deaf or require a wheelchair to get around. At this level of understanding, they are unable to justify the expense of adding accessibility. Blind people don’t book hotels they will say. Wheelchair bound people aren’t on Google looking for automobile manufacture websites, mixing and matching interiors, colors, wheel covers and comparing gas mileage.

These are outdated beliefs and assumptions.

Not only will they limit development, they limit revenue. They also send a message about the ethics of your company. As more companies make it clear who they will refuse to do business with, at least these exclusions are clear and even advertised. It’s more difficult to know what companies disrespect you by making it impossible to perform tasks with their mobile app or purchase an item from their website.  They didn’t plan for your visit.

Accessibility is Inclusion

Inclusion is a buzz word that crept into accessibility discussions, but rather than defining people by their skin color or life partner, inclusion reaches beyond special needs and explores unqiue use cases, situations we find ourselves in, subtle human conditions and temporary physical limitations. In other words, everyone your software or website hopes to attract fits the accessibility profile for inclusion.

For example, let’s watch Jake and Julie, a newly married couple, age 29, who closed on their first house and are furniture shopping in town. Julie pulls up to the store and drops Jake off before parking the car. As luck would have it, Jake broke his leg while skiing on their honeymoon and Julie helps him with doors, driving, and holding his water bottle while they stroll around the store. When the sales person approaches them, it’s more likely that eye contact will be made with Jake first, because he is the man and traditionally the buyer. This is an assumption of course, and a common one. Jake is also dyslectic and has trouble reading, which Julie is used to.  She is the one turning over the signs and reading the descriptions and prices to Jake.  She struggles a little with the small print, but she reads fast and this helps them be more productive. The sales person barely takes notice that Julie is the one reading to Jake. By the time the couple chooses a recliner and they proceed to pay for it, the sales person is polite to them both, but the discussion is directed towards Jake and he is asked for his signature, even though the credit card Julie hands over is a joint card and it was easier to grab her card rather than help Jake find his.

Which part of this story fits with accessibility?  It’s normal for stores to have handicapped access for wheelchairs and automatic doors. What happens after entry is where the inclusion or exclusion goes off in infinite directions. In this story, women are not considered to be equal wage earners or known as purchasers of large ticket items. That stigma is subtle and so is Jakes reading difficulty. Had he been alone, he would have struggled to understand the signs and furniture descriptions and not had help.  It might not have occurred to anyone to increase the font sizes for the signs or train their sales people to be astute enough to locate a customer that may need assistance. Small steps here, when thought of and planned for in advance, have the potential to increase sales.

What happens when Jake and Julie are in their sixties, shopping online, and over the years, changes have occurred with their bodies? Julie is nearly blind now, and requires glasses and contacts, and is no longer able to drive at night. Jake uses voice search and various tech gadgets to turn on the lights in the house,  play music and read to him. They discovered he is color blind when they were buying curtains a few years ago for a room where they were finally going to toss out that recliner. To their surprise, Jake believed it was a gray recliner and Julie insisted it was olive green.

When they go online, there are more considerations needed to accommodate their eyesight, computer devices and signs of aging such as memory and retaining information they read, hear on a podcast or listen to from a video tutorial. Julie is on medication for depression since the deaths of her parents, and she’s feeling emotional as she researches the type of cancer her best friend was just diagnosed with. Websites designed for a distraught user are what she most needs. Julie won’t be judged for being a woman, but she will find she is excluded from some websites based on her age and emotional state of mind.

Discrimination and Accessibility

As you can see, there are countless user stories. Most companies aren’t willing to listen to them. It doesn’t occur to them to be different.   I often hear stakeholders say, “We copied what so and so is doing on their website.”  They believe that “so and so” is knocking it out of the park, when in fact, I can find their issues immediately. Even large brands struggle for every sale, especially in competitive industries.

One such industry that discriminates against women is the health and beauty one. YouTube is jammed with young women demonstrating how to apply makeup and recommending their favorite products. Tattoos and piercings fads are not as hot as how to blend a pound of product on the face and eyes and how to get “that look”.

Max is a gay model, age 22, with hazel eyes and endearing smile, whose how-to instructional videos for face makeup have thousands of subscribers. He is featured on cosmetic sites, providing inspiration for other men who love to enhance their appearance. There is no barrier to his videos other than those who choose to not watch them, and he enjoys affiliate sales income for his efforts. He knows he targets sighted users, but also mobile users who multi-task and use various apps to listen to his blog posts and podcasts.

Mollie is 14, lives at home, has health issues that keep her homebound and home schooled, and she has no job.  She is artistic and expressive, and uses her laptop to visit friends and engage with the community organizations she volunteers for.  Mollie spends hours learning to sculpt her face with cosmetics as an extension of her art and to communicate her personal sense of self. She is prevented from purchasing from most cosmetic sites because they require a credit card and she is too young to have one.

Mollie loves her grandmother, Monica, who shares her love of makeup, even at her age of 73. Monica is gorgeous and has every intention of keeping it that way. When she looks for new make up products online, she struggles to find instructional videos targeted to women her age. Cosmetic sites don’t use older models. They avoid posts about aging skin and how to cover up wrinkles or even out skin tone for 70 year old’s. Monica has a credit card. She can buy gifts for Mollie and all her grand kids prevented from websites that don’t allow them access to purchase options other than credit cards. She’s aware that she is not targeted by cosmetic companies and has to work harder to find a brand that understands that fads have no age restrictions.  Monica has tattoos too. She is not a social site user and hates her cell phone.

How does a company design to include Monica, Mollie and Max?

Do their user stories fall into the realm of accessibility? Yes.  Each one, on the surface, is fully capable of using a computer. Or so it may seem. We are quick to judge and assume. What if Mollie is deaf? What if Max has ADD and has trouble with online distractions like sliders, animation, popups and too much content? Monica has Parkinson’s, which is why she is frustrated with computers. Her hands shake.

Preparation for Inclusion

Discussing accessibility always seems to focus on ADA compliance and legal concerns. Does your company website need to meet WCAG or Section 508 compliance? What’s happening with HR 620 that stalled in the Senate? If passed, disabled people will be discriminated against with the approval of the US Government.

Meanwhile, major corporations like Google, Apple, Adobe and Microsoft are hiring autistic employees rather than discriminating against them. They are on point developers of assistive computer devices used to help humans overcome any handicap. They hire people trained in human factors, neurosciences, usability, accessibility, and behavioral research to find new ways to enable more people who wish to be the creators of their own destinies on their own terms.

These creators are the future for us all.