Design Domination Podcast Episode #69: 9 Myths About Accessibility

Most designers don’t know about accessibility or have misconceptions about it, such as thinking it will hinder their creativity or that it doesn't apply to their clients. Find out 9 myths about accessibility and why you and your clients should care.

Myth #1: Accessibility only serves blind users.

Yes, accessibility does serve individuals with blindness. However, in the United States at least, vision-related disabilities, which total about 6.4 million, comprise the smallest portion of all types of disabilities. That number includes other visual conditions besides blindness, such as low vision or color blindness.

Individuals with a hearing-related disability—partial hearing loss or deafness—total about 10.5 million.

The next largest group is those with a neurological or cognitive disability, such as cerebral palsy or dementia. They total almost 15 million.

The largest group—at almost 21 million—is those with an ambulatory disability, such as one-sided weakness that occurred as the result of a stroke.

That means that approximately 46 million plus a good portion of the visual disability group do not have blindness.

Considering worldwide numbers, there are about 1 billion people with a disability.

Also note that someone could have more than one disability, such as deafness and blindness. Or that a disability could be temporary, such as a broken arm, wrist or leg from a car accident. A lot of people don’t think of it this way, and they usually think of blindness and wheelchairs or older people.

Think about people with a birth defect, people who’ve been in an accident, veterans, people of any age.

Personally, I know three people, ranging in age from 25 to 45, who have multiple sclerosis. I have friends who are deaf or have dyslexia, one with cerebral palsy, two different ones who are wheelchair users as a result of a spinal cord injury from a car accident when there were teenagers, and one who is legally blind and at one point was the most decorated Paralympic female swimmer in history.

I grew up with a friend who was born with a birth defect. She had a thumb but no fingers on one hand.

I have numerous friends whose children have cognitive disabilities.

I’m sure I also have friends with color blindness, macular degeneration—or another one that you can’t tell by looking at them that maybe they’ve just never mentioned.

Many of the disabilities I just mentioned are not even related to vision.

So, often I hear that because accessibility is all about blindness, which, of course, is incorrect, as I just proved. But I hear that from a lot of designers and developers when they build websites. They think, “I’ll just test the site with a screen reader and then it’s good.”

But, no, that’s not the case.

You have to test it with the keyboard too, not just a screen reader, although screen readers may be used by not only those with blindness but also individuals with low vision or cognitive disabilities.

Myth #2: Accessibility doesn’t apply to my clients.

You might think that your clients need to be governmental agencies or large corporations to be concerned with accessibility or to legally comply with accessibility laws. But did you know that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) pertains to places of public accommodation.

Some of those are:

  • hotels and restaurants;
  • bakeries and grocery stores;
  • clothing and hardware stores;
  • laundromats and dry cleaners;
  • banks;
  • barber shops and beauty salons;
  • gyms and health spas;
  • travel services;
  • accountants, lawyers and health care providers;
  • public transportation; and
  • schools.

And that’s not even a full list either.

Your clients may assume they don’t serve anyone with a disability—but they do. Clients can’t see who is coming to their website. They can see who comes into their offices but, still, some disabilities are not outwardly obvious. You can’t see if someone has dyslexia or seizure disorder or hearing loss or color blindness, for example.

The only way your clients might find out is if someone contacts them and says they can’t read some of the text on their website. Or they can’t access the navigation with a keyboard, so they can’t get around the site. Or they can’t understand the charts in the annual report because they weren’t designed with colorblind users in mind.

If the website needs to be fixed or rebuilt and you were the one to build it to begin with, that would be embarrassing! The client would wonder why you didn’t bring this up.

What if a costly legal claim is made against your client? That could potentially put you on the hook! I’ve heard of several scenarios where this has happened.

Implementing accessibility is good for every business. It is definitely your client’s problem if they lose sales because people can’t access their content or if they get a bad reputation for not being inclusive of all users.

Plus, people with a disability are three times as likely to avoid a business that seems to have a negative reputation toward diversity and twice as likely to dissuade others from doing business with them.

Your clients may not even know they’re already losing sales for this reason.

Myth #3: Accessibility is ugly.

I hear this so much from designers. “If I design sites to be accessible, they’ll look ugly. They won’t appeal to people who don’t need accessibility.”

No. A lot of documents and websites are ugly. But that’s because they were poorly designed. Making something accessible has nothing to do with how good it looks.

There’s no single way to style something for accessibility, designwise, so you have lots of options. It could actually force you to challenge yourself creatively.

Myth #4: Accessibility means I have to design with dark colors.

I’ve hear this one a lot too. But this is not at all the case.

One aspect of accessibility involves ensuring sufficient contrast between foreground and background colors for text and many other essential elements, but that doesn’t mean you need to use dark colors.

In fact, if all you used were dark colors, then you couldn’t use them in tandem with one another. It simply all comes down to how they are used.

Apparently, designers aren’t the only ones who think accessibility means dark colors either. Before creating an accessible email design for a client last year, I asked them to send their color palette. We designed the email with the colors we were provided and made sure the design was accessible.

The client questioned one of the color combinations that we had used for one of the section’s text and background colors, which had passed contrast checks. I explained that we thought this was the best possible option based on their color palette.

They suddenly mentioned there were other colors in the color palette that they hadn’t sent. What? I asked why. They said they thought those other colors were too light to use.

So it all depends on how they are used. No, you can’t use a light color against a light background or a dark color against a dark background. But you can use a lighter color against a darker background and vice versa—as long as you check that the contrast requirements are met for essential elements.

Sometimes you can modify them just a tad—lightening or darkening one of them—to get them to work.

Myth #5: Accessibility only helps people with disabilities.

Most people won’t notice good design or accessibility, but accessibility results in a better design and a better experience for all users.

This reminds of when I rented an apartment many years ago. It was handicap accessible, to accommodate a wheelchair. I didn’t need that, but that was the only apartment they had available. Well, I loved it! It had extra-wide doorways, which is great, especially for me, since I always bump my shoulders and elbows on doorways. It also had a large bedroom closet and a big bathroom.

On the other hand, poor design and functionality will definitely get noticed.

I myself do not have a disability, but I can tell you that it boggles my mind when I see hyperlinks that are styled simply as bold text and nothing else. I’m like, where do I go? Is this a hyperlink? I have to try to interact with it to even find out.

Or I go to a site with tons of videos that get in my face and I can’t stop them from playing. I bet that annoys you too!

Myth #6: Accessibility is expensive.

Implementing accessibility costs less and is easier to do when it’s done as part of the design process—whether that’s for branding, a document or a website.

When you think about accessibility at the branding stage, you can plan an appropriate color palette. If you don’t think about this early on, then what happens is that existing colors need to be modified or new ones need to be chosen.

If your client has to redo their marketing materials down the road to make the colors accessible, that will be costly, especially if they need to be reprinted. I mean, you don’t want to have to use a modified color palette for the website and digital documents and the original one for print. That would be inconsistent and not good for branding.

When I remediate InDesign files for creative firms, I often have to modify or swap out colors to get combinations that work for accessibility. Sometimes it’s time consuming. It involves not only checking what works but then considering how these colors will all work in a document. You don’t necessarily want to be too heavy on one color—or you might. But if not, you have to take that into consideration.

Also, using best practices in the page layout software goes a long way. If you aren’t using best practices, you aren’t using the software to its potential and you’re slowing down your workflow.

I’ve gotten InDesign files from designers who’ve been in the industry a very long time who do not use best practices. Not only do I have to redo the entire layout properly but then incorporate accessibility. That ends up costing their client more.

Like with documents, with websites, best practices in web development and usability go a long way toward achieving accessibility.

If your client thinks accessibility is expensive, you can tell them that accessibility claims and lawsuits cost much more than that. They can range from $4,000 to $100,000 per claim.

One person could sue them and they end up being given six months or a year to redo their site, but that doesn’t mean someone else won’t come along and sue them too during that time period.

Myth #7: I’ll just use an automated checker or overlay.

I see designers and developers talking online about this all the time—how they’ll just use an automated checker to make sure their documents and websites are accessible.

If you check a PDF document with Acrobat’s Accessibility Checker, it doesn’t mean it’s good to go. It cannot detect all accessibility issues. Testing, manual checks and even some manual work still need to be done in the PDF.

When it comes to websites, it’s similar. There is no single automated accessibility tool that can check for every issue. Only about 25% of potential accessibility issues can even be detected by these tools.

Not only that, they sometimes give false passing results or flag things that are indeed OK, such as text with sufficient contrast on a background gradient or image.

Then there is the question of whether or not the checker or overlay will properly fix something. For instance, it may find images without an Alt attribute, but a person still needs to determine if that image should have an empty Alt attribute or have Alt-text.

If it should have Alt-text, then what will be appropriate? That depends on the image and how it’s being used.

So someone who understands accessibility would need to address all of these situations.

In addition to automated checkers, I see so many web designers and developers talking about how they use accessibility overlays on client sites. I did an entire episode about how accessibility overlays don’t work and how the companies who make them use them on their own sites, and they have tons of accessibility issues!

If you’re using an overlay for client sites, please run—don’t walk—and listen to that episode.

You can’t shortcut accessibility. There is no silver bullet.

Myth #8: Accessibility is only about warding off lawsuits.

Think of accessibility as enabling everyone to read your clients’ websites and digital publications. There are so many benefits!

  • It’s good business. Like I said earlier, better reputation and more sales as a result. But, also, accessible sites are better coded and their content is properly formatted. That means attracting more people via search engine results.
  • Users also won’t have to wait as long for pages to load due to the better and leaner code. That means users are more likely to stay on your client’s site rather than go to a competitor’s site.
  • Easier to read due to good typography and color choices.
  • Easier to use because users will be able to tell where hyperlinks are and able to use the navigation with any device, whether they’re using a keyboard, trackball, a sip-and-puff system or something else.
  • Users will be able to understand any audio or video on the site, whether or not they have a disability. They could be in a room with loud kids running around, finding it hard to hear what’s being said.

Myth #9: I use an accessible website theme, so I’m good.

I hate to break it to you, but even if you use an accessible theme, it’s not going to be 100%. It also only takes into account the structure of the site.

It doesn’t take into account the design, the page content (text, images, audio and video) or any PDF, Word or PowerPoint files that may be available for download on the site. Those need to be accessible too.

Plus, accessibility is an ongoing process. It’s definitely not “set it and forget it.” You could design an accessible site and next week your client mucks it up because they didn’t know how to make their page content accessible.

There is a lot to consider.

Learn More

I really hope you want to learn more about this topic. It is so important.

If you are the one who introduces your client to this topic, think about how far ahead you can help them get and how they’ll appreciate you for that, for looking out for them.

If you’re interested in learning more on this topic of accessibility, I have several accessibility resources for you:

One comment

  • It’s great that you talked about accessibility designs for buildings. In my opinion, companies need to provide accessible features for people with different needs. If I were to own a building, I’d definitely check it has accessibility characteristics and welcomes everyone. Thanks for the information on accessibility in business sites and their importance.

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