Web accessibility - the quick list

You work hard to make your website useful. Don’t undercut your efforts by failing to make it accessible to all kinds of users.

If you’ve never thought much about who can and can’t use your site, the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can be a bit overwhelming.

Not to fear. A few little changes can make a big difference in your site’s accessibility. The four practices below cover some of the most common accessibility problems on the web. Even better, they require no special skills and very little time to fix, especially if you build with accessibility in mind from the start.

Include meaningful alternative (alt) text.

Apps like VoiceOver (Mac) and NVDA (Windows) speak the contents of web pages to people who are visually impaired by reading aloud from the underlying code. In order to tell the user what’s in a picture, the screen reader has to have something to read. That’s where you come in.

When you upload an image to your site, chances are the interface has a field for alternative text. Take a moment to include a few words of descriptive alt text that describe what’s in the picture (i.e. “spotted dog chasing a toy”)  If your content management system doesn’t offer a field for alt text (some don’t) politely contact customer service and ask how you should make your pictures accessible to screen reader users.

Bonus: Search engines index that same code, and your alt text can provide keywords that help your site show up in searches. (Don’t take that as license to stuff your alt text with barely relevant keywords. That only angers the search gods.)

Use headings and subheadings.

Just as the sidewalk curb cuts make street crossing better for everyone, headings and subheadings are the tide that lifts all ships when it comes to web content.

  • DO: Use that dropdown list in your text editor - the one with options like Heading1, Heading2, Heading3 and paragraph.

  • DON’T:  Bold the text and tweak the font size to make some lines bigger and bolder. That’s cheating.

  • Make the tile of the page a Heading1 and the first subheading a Heading2, then try to structure your page as a loose outline.

Sighted visitors will thank you because this organization helps them quickly scan the page and understand what it’s about. Users with cognitive disabilities will appreciate that, too. And screen reader users can jump from heading to heading, effectively “scanning” the page with their ears.

Bonus:  This also helps keep your site looking clean and consistent, makes it easier to maintain.

Example of poor text link from the University of Michigan Division of Public Safety & Security Web Page.

Example of poor text link from the University of Michigan Division of Public Safety & Security Web Page.

Write link text that tells the user where they’re going

Next time you’re tempted to link the words “click here” just don’t.  Just as screen readers can announce all the headings on a page, they can read out a list of link text to give the user an idea what this page connects to.

Imagine that your page full of important links uses “Click here” for every link. A screen reader user would have to follow each link to a new page and figure out where they’ve landed. Or they may just skip the links and miss important information.

Mind your color contrast.

Designers love the clean, understated look of grey-on-white design, but too much of a good thing makes your site a misery for people with low vision. Try the NoCoffee Chrome plugin to experience it yourself. WCAG 2.0AA guidelines require a background to foreground color contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1. Fortunately there are some good online tools that can tell you where your site stands.

Better yet, design with good contrast from the start. ColorSafe asks you for a background color, font family and text size, then generates color palette options that meet WCAG  2.0 AA standards.

Amy E. Whitesall oversees web content and usability for the University of Michigan College of Engineering

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A Call for All Designers: Inclusive Design

Last year I was talking with a good friend and Paralympic champion, Brad Bowden, where he brought to my attention a reality about human behavior that is almost too obvious to believe.  He pointed out that when given the choice between walking up a ramp or walking up stairs, people almost always take the ramp. Why is this significant? Because, as Brad pointed out, just about everyone can go up a ramp, but there are millions of people in the USA and Canada alone who can’t take the stairs.

I, myself, immediately recalled many childhood memories where I’d ask if I could run up the ramp to the library rather than taking the stairs simply because it was fun.

Ramps are just as inclusive for people with disabilities as those without.  If I have learned anything from my years in design, more often than not, solutions to address disability result in easier use for a range of end-users over an incredible range of products and systems.

A similar pivotal moment of learning came to us on Twitter. The account @SC_Playground, an organization creating inclusive playgrounds in Santa Cruz, reached out to our account (@AdaptDsgn) when they noticed our “about me” description on or homepage, which read: designing beautiful products for differently-abled people. At the time, we thought it was more appropriate to say ‘differently-abled’ than ‘disabled.’ What they brought to our attention was the ableism and avoidance of reality that ‘differently-abled’ implies. To help us educate ourselves further on this sort of ableist terminology, SC Playground referred us to an awesome article on how the term ‘differently-abled’ marginalizes people with disabilities.

We could not be more thankful to SC Playground and others who advise us similarly,  and is the reason we continue to use social media as a platform to spur dialogue. The Adapt Design team exists to learn from you - the experts on disability - so that we can apply our design expertise in a thoughtful  and productive way.

Inclusive playgrounds are a demonstrative example of how design can create integrated settings that anyone can enjoy. In the same way that ramps are largely accessible to those with and without physical disabilities, so are inclusive playgrounds. Too much of the design community is ignorant of both disability and the benefits of designing for disability as standard practice. Afterall, why wouldn’t you want to create a playground, building, school, park, that everyone and anyone can use? We know how to build bathrooms so that they are accessible to everyone. We know how wide doorways have to be to comfortably fit a wheelchair. We know how to design playgrounds so that all kids can enjoy them. Even so, attempts to implement these solutions are often failed afterthoughts to meet regulations and are not necessarily realistic for people with disabilities. There are no excuses. It’s time for all of us planning renovations, building structures, designing new institutions to demand accessible designs.

Not sure where to start? Let’s have a conversation. Help us to help you incorporate inclusive design principles into every aspect of your work and life: hello@weareadaptdesign.com

Photo courtesy of Shane's Inspiration, an awesome organization committed to inclusive play and literacy.

Photo courtesy of Shane's Inspiration, an awesome organization committed to inclusive play and literacy.

- Laura, CEO/Co-Founder

Life Lessons from Eden's Mom

Eden and her mother, Billie.

Eden and her mother, Billie.

"I've been thinking, pondering, wondering...how do I teach Eden that she is just like everyone else? That her disability does not define her? That she can do whatever she wants, based on her strengths? That everyone has strengths and weaknesses?

How do I teach others that she is a 'normal' kid? That she should be treated the same as everyone else? That she loves all the same things that the other kids like? That she wants to play too?

Then it hit me...she is NOT like everyone else.

If I fail to recognize and accept her differences...if I fail to recognize and embrace her many strengths, I am failing her. She is different. Just like everyone else."

- Billie, mother of Eden, a beautiful young woman with cerebral palsy and a good friend of ours. Eden informs several of our projects, including my senior capstone design project.

Quote from Understanding the NICU: What Parents of Preemies and other Hospitalized Newborns Need to Know by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

x Laura

One Small Product, One Big Problem.

Her face was as red as the mini basketball in her lap, catching our eye, Stephanie beamed as she rapidly propelled her wheelchair towards us. As an active middle schooler, and exceptionally social young woman, it was no surprise when she and her mother agreed to meet with me and my team.

While engaging in front end research at Adapt Design, we caught up with Stephanie during her physical therapy session at University of Michigan's facilities. She was eager to open up about her love of school, but we soon found a topic that dimmed her radiating excitement: field trips. 

Stephanie’s middle school offers a variety of field trips that allow students to learn curriculum in an interesting and hands-on way. These field trips give students new perspective as well as the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned. 

A recent study from The Wagner Group showed that kids who take field trips are more likely to graduate both high school and college, with 59% showing an improvement in their grades. The survey also found that among those who traveled to learn, 86% believed they were more curious inside the classroom as a result. 

Stephanie however, was robbed of these critical experiences. Her insurance company refused to provide her with the hardware necessary to secure her wheelchair into a school bus.

The company claimed that the parts, known as a “transit option”, were a non-essential luxury item that must be paid for by Stephanie’s family. However, these parts would cost her family upwards of $250 out of pocket, a cost that they could not afford at the time. 

Stephanie and her mother exchanged a look of helplessness, before sharing she had missed the field trips. She had no choice but to remain at home while her classmates participated in significant educational experiences that could have proved to be essential to her academic success.

My face grew as red as the mini basketball in her lap when I realized it was not a wheelchair part that was labeled as luxury, it was her education.

- Sidney, Co-Founder & Designer

*Stephanie's name has been changed to protect her privacy. 

Thoughts from a reflective designer

Hi Everyone.

It's been a reflective couple of months. The recurring theme is there is so much to be done in the world and - guess what? - we have the ability to do it. Isn't that amazing? Every one of us has the ability to make the change we wish to see.

That being said, here are some musings on disability design that have been floating in my head the past month or so. For reference, "Mike" is Mike Harris, director of the Paralyzed Veteran's for America and good friend to ADAPT.

Mike harris, director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, speaking with attendees of the interdisciplinary design confrence // April 2016

Mike harris, director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, speaking with attendees of the interdisciplinary design confrence // April 2016

“Disability doesn’t discriminate.” This is Mike’s favorite phrase as a manual wheelchair user. And he’s right. Disability doesn’t care if you’re black or white, straight or gay, rich or poor. It can affect anybody at any time, but for some reason we don’t treat it that way—especially when it comes to design. We create buildings with the accessible entrance artfully hidden by a row of shrubs or found in a side alley. We create hearing aids to be as small and inconspicuous as possible as if it’s shameful to require one. We install bathroom sinks and locate the drain pipe in the center of the sink rather than to the side, even though this prevents wheelchair users from getting close enough to use it.

All of these examples come from wheelchair users speaking to student designers at an interdisciplinary design conference I organized last spring. We've identified (a few of) many problems. Now it's time to work.

- Laura, CEO

A Union of Education & Passion.

Last Sunday I had the absolute pleasure of spending time with the beautiful Eden Ericson. Eden is an outgoing, art-loving, kind-hearted sixth grader who has cerebral palsy which causes her to use a wheelchair. She is one of many people we work with to identify design problems and to create effective solutions.

The purpose of this meeting was to kick off my senior design project. Much like Sidney working last year on her senior thesis with Amanda Jurysta, I get to spend my senior year creating something beautiful for Eden. Throughout the semester, I am working in a team with two other engineering students Amanda Chamberlain and Val Coldren. I spent some time catching them up on my previous experiences working with Eden, but it also gave me the opportunity to learn new things about her and her family's experiences trying to find everyday products that she can use. For instance, it took Eden's parents a lot of trial and error to finally find a water bottle that was easy to open but wouldn't break if dropped. 

Eden also has a pink basket holding all of the necessities; iPod, water bottle, some pencils, and what she jokingly refers to as other 'junk'. The problem here is, as a preteen she told us she'd like to carry a purse instead, This is the problem space we are currently most interested in. We are currently working with Eden to explore how we might develop a solution that she can customize the look of everyday depending on her mood, outfit, etc.

My senior project teammates and I are spending Thanksgiving week reflecting on our meeting and doing some individual brainstorming. Next week, we'll reunite to compare initial sketches and see what Eden thinks of our progress.

 - Laura, CEO

Streamline solutions to foster independence.

Every time we interview someone with a disability, we ask where they find resources or products that help them navigate their environment. Too often the response we hear is "I don't know." Most people we meet with spend hours searching the internet for solutions that address various aspects of living with a disability. While this is so obviously frustrating and slow to resolve, we also see some clever hacks that result from this extreme lack of option. 

At Adapt, we decided to create a resource page dedicated to sharing these clever DIY solutions, but also to help people find existing products and services already available on the market. The database of resources will continue to grow rapidly as we come across new people, and companies working to improve independence for those with disabilities.

Amanda Jurysta shows our designer the different products she has used in attempt to make her wheelchair more efficient. 

As we began collecting information on new products and services, we also came across movements of people working on social justice issues relating to rights of the disabled. After discovering these groups the Adapt team decided to include a "Movements" section that will feature groups of people working on advocacy and awareness for disability. 

We ask that you reach out to us if you have a hack, service, movement, or product that you think is worth sharing. Together, we can streamline new solutions to those who need them allowing us to save time, foster innovation, and support small businesses. 

 - Sidney, Designer