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Nothing About Us, Without Us: Starting Digital Accessibility Conversations

Feb 24, 2023

For practical, ethical, and legal reasons, digital products need to be accessible for as many people as possible. 

Websites should work well with screen readers (software that converts text to audio) and other types of assistive technology (AT). Mobile apps should function as expected on screens of all sizes. People should be able to use a keyboard alone — no mouse — to operate most types of software, and digital kiosks (such as in-store tablets) should be useful for people with vision, hearing, and physical disabilities.

But while the best practices of inclusive design are catching on, many organizations take the wrong approach: They see accessibility as something that can be added to a product after-the-fact.

“Nothing about us, without us" is a popular (and empowering) slogan for accessibility advocates. The concept is simple: If your goal is to make something accessible, you should seek participation from people with disabilities as early as possible. That means thinking about accessibility during the first stages of product planning.

People with disabilities should have a voice in every discussion

Imagine that you’re building a website for people who speak German. You don’t speak German, and no member of your team speaks German. 

Would you feel comfortable creating and launching the website?

You’d certainly have some serious, legitimate concerns. You might refuse to take the project. At the very least, you’d insist on hiring German content writers or testing the website with a German test audience.

Digital accessibility should work the same way. If you haven’t tested your content with a screen reader, you have no way to tell whether the website is accessible with AT — and even if you do test with a screen reader, you won’t have the same familiarity with the software as an experienced screen reader user.

Related: What’s the Difference Between Manual and Automated Accessibility Testing?

Accessible digital products require an accessibility-first mindset

Involving people with disabilities gives you the freedom to develop products that work for a wider range of users. That’s not a minor concern: Worldwide, at least 15% live with a disability, and in the United States, about 1 in 4 adults have some form of disability.

When you begin thinking about accessibility early in the product development lifecycle, everyone wins. Helpful features are built in from day one. Your team writes clean, robust code, which means lower development costs over time.

And when people with disabilities take a leadership role, they can often lend insights that elevate the final product. Instead of making a website or mobile app “good enough" to satisfy accessibility requirements, the product can provide end-users with an excellent experience — whether they’re using a mouse and keyboard, a touchscreen device, or assistive technology. 

Related: Choosing Benchmarking Metrics for Website Accessibility

The disability community is ready to help

Thanks to social stigma, individuals with disabilities are frequently marginalized or ignored. They deserve the opportunity to engage in important conversations and take leadership roles — particularly when the discussion is about their experiences.

“Nothing about us, without us" is an excellent mantra for digital creators. If you’re planning a product, keep these ideas in mind:

  • Don’t force someone into a leadership role. If a member of your team has a disability, they may want to lead digital accessibility discussions — but they may not.

  • Don’t make assumptions. Instead of assuming that you’ve fixed an accessibility issue, have a clear testing strategy that involves manual testing performed by AT users.

  • Avoid assigning the work of accessibility to any single person. Accessibility is a principle, not a job, and your strategy will be more sustainable if everyone plays their part.

  • Seek guidance from experts with disabilities. For website and mobile app development, work with an accessibility partner that can test your product thoroughly and provide training for your entire team.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Without open discussions, nothing can change, and asking questions can help reduce the stigma surrounding disabilities. 

Finally, test your product against recognized standards throughout development. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are widely considered to be the international standard for digital accessibility, and products that follow all WCAG Level AA success criteria are considered reasonably accessible for most users. Read more about the differences between WCAG levels

When you follow WCAG and involve the disability community in your product’s development, you’ll enjoy the full benefits of accessible design. Individuals with disabilities are ready to help, and when you treat them as valued voices, you can build better products.

For additional guidance, download our free eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset. To learn how the Bureau of Internet Accessibility relies on the expertise of people with disabilities, send us a message.

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