The Covid-19 pandemic has shifted an ever-larger share of public life online. Unfortunately, however, the internet remains a largely inaccessible place for people with visual or hearing impairments. As publishers rightfully aim to become more inclusive, the 61 million American adults with disabilities are an underserved group well worth remembering.
To overworked editors and designers, provisions for web accessibility can feel extraneous and opaque. Considerations like image alt text or video subtitles often require added steps before publishing a story and may not seem like a vital imperative. But given last year’s Supreme Court ruling that essentially sets precedent that the Americans With Disabilities Act applies to online platforms, media companies should be thinking about digital accessibility.
Priorities and skill development
“Web accessibility can be very confusing. It can be daunting,” says Bryan Gould, director of accessible learning and assessment technologies at the National Center for Accessible Media. “It’s a whole other skillset to learn, potentially. And you don’t necessarily have editors who can talk to developers and designers all in the same language.”
Publishers, particularly news outlets serving the public interest, should consider making themselves as widely accessible as possible central to their mission. But the fact is that accessibility isn’t just the right thing to do, it is also good business.
Gareth Ford Williams, head of user experience design at the BBC, has long been an advocate for accessibility in media. In 2004, he founded the national broadcaster’s first digital accessibility team.
More recently, he was part of the team that developed BBC Reith, a new uniform typeface used across the organization. With distinguishable letter shapes, legible in small sizes, Reith is meant to ease the experience for a multitude of users. These include those with visual impairments and neurological conditions like dyslexia, as well as less-advanced readers.
On top of improving accessibility, Reith has become an element of the BBC brand. Moreover, it actually saves money, eliminating the cost of licensing third-party fonts.
“Pretty much everything in accessibility has a much bigger context,” Williams says. “It is about disabilities, very much so. But it’s also about situational and environmental disabilities as well as medical disabilities.”
Williams points to video consumption statistics on social media platforms. On Facebook alone, as much as 85% of all video views occur with the sound turned off. “Captioning is expensive,” he adds. “But look at the reach opportunity. If you’re not capturing that potential, you’re undermining your own business case.”
A good look
Three years ago, Boston public radio station GBH undertook a “massive redesign” of its website, says senior editor Ellen London. Among the priorities was creating a more “visual-forward” experience. This meant a design that is accessible and appealing to a larger share of users.
The newsroom partnered with Gould’s team at NCAM, a part of the GBH organization, to develop accessibility guidelines specific to the new CMS. Provisions included sufficient contrast between text and background colors and alt text for images. Rather than simply saying “click here,” hyperlinks should be descriptive, catering to users of assistive technology like screen readers.
GBH then created a highly condensed, one-sheet checklist, which editors, reporters and producers can print and keep at their workstations. “Putting together some great resources to refer to and empowering producers and editors to get involved has worked really well for us,” says Gould. “It’s not that editors don’t want to make their content accessible, it’s just that you can’t know what you don’t know.”
This focus on accessibility was manifested in GBH’s “Year in Pictures” feature, published at the end of 2019. Photographs representing the most important stories of the year were accompanied by concise yet thorough descriptions. These descriptions were then recorded by GBH radio reporters and uploaded as audio files.
“The whole point was to put the accessibility out where everybody can see what it is and why it’s there,” says Gould. “The idea was not just to make it accessible, but to make accessibility a feature.”
It was a learning experience for the GBH team, London says. Creating effective image descriptions proved to be more of an art than previously thought. It required careful decision-making around how to best convey the purpose, context and information in an image for someone who can’t see it.
“As an editor, I have definitely put elements like audio descriptions in more of a transactional category,” London adds. “In learning how to write and record and produce them myself, I learned how much those descriptions are part of the editorial process just like any other part of the story. That was really an eye-opener to me; it’s highly editorial.”
Of course, not every publisher has the benefit of a media accessibility center within its organization. While resources such as the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines exist, they are dense and difficult to understand—even for experts.
“I myself remember looking at the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and being overwhelmed,” says Patrick Garvin, a former designer and developer at The Boston Globe. Now an adjunct professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, Garvin suggests that one of the biggest accessibility obstacles publishers face is simply awareness.
“The way to appreciate the WCAG is to first understand how people with disabilities use the web,” he says. “I think many people either are unaware of how their work is inaccessible. Or they might be aware but not sure what they can do to fix it.”
At the BBC, internal design research teams recruit users of various levels of ability for focus groups. Williams specifically recommends consulting with users who have disabilities.
“They’re brilliant people to work with, because they know the coping strategies and can teach you about the barriers that they experience,” he says.
Just as architects no longer design buildings without ramps, Williams says publishers shouldn’t build websites that exclude people.
“If you have an impairment and we don’t build things that are accessible, we are disabling you,” he says. “You’re not disabled until we gave you a barrier, and it’s our fault the barrier is there. We designed it.”
To better integrate this mission into the corporate culture, Williams established an “accessibility champions” network in 2011. Completely voluntary, that group has since grown to include about 230 BBC employees.
“They have one core function, and that’s to be the voice of the disabled user in every sprint,” he says. “They don’t have to be the person with the answers. All we expect them to do is to talk about it. It’s more cultural and structural. It gets people thinking about accessibility and dealing with it.”
For publishers who wish to ensure they’re at least covering the basics of accessibility, Gould recommends four key considerations. Multimedia and images should be accompanied by captions. Colors and fonts should not be distracting. There shouldn’t be motion on a page that can’t be paused or switched off.
Accessibility considerations extend off of owned and operated platforms as well. Social media strategist Alexa Heinrich suggests taking advantage of platforms’ accessibility features, limiting emojis, and avoiding text-heavy images.
On a cultural level, encouraging staffers to think about accessibility throughout the design and production process is far easier (and cheaper) than retrofitting things after the fact, says London.
“Accessibility should be treated the same way as accuracy: Everyone has a role to play in ensuring it, even if not everyone plays the same role,” adds Garvin. “The commitment to accessibility should come from the top.”
Gould believes that awareness is growing that digital accessibility is important. And he emphasizes that it doesn’t have to be expensive. “If you start planning from the beginning, you can make an accessible web experience that doesn’t really cost more. In fact, it saves you money from having to retrofit things—or deal with a lawsuit.”
When embedded into the culture of an organization, accessibility becomes a self-sustaining investment, says Williams. “It brings so much value and efficiency back into the organization, it enables accessibility in such a massive context, that it improves usability across the board,” he adds.