Written by: Carter Edge, Core10 Software Engineer
So far in my career as a software engineer, I’ve had project leads and clients alike advocate for browser compatibility — which is understandable, given that according to StatCounter, no single browser currently holds a clear majority of U.S. users. However, there have also been several occasions where I’ve had to personally advocate for the importance of software accessibility.
Accessibility is important ethically, of course — to disregard accessibility is a discriminatory practice. But more than that, factoring in accessibility to your software design is necessary: According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 “Americans with Disabilities” report, 5.1% of American adults have impaired vision or blindness, 7.1% have hearing difficulty, and 12.4% have a functional limitation such as difficulty lifting 10 pounds or grasping small objects — all of which can make interfacing with technology difficult. In comparison, beyond Chrome and Safari, only 7% of American internet users browse with Internet Explorer or Edge, only 3.8% use Firefox, and less than 5% use anything else, yet they continue to be important checks for browser compatibility.
Accessibility is a blind spot for even some of the most skilled developers. Early on, I myself knew little more about accessibility than “rem” is a more responsive unit in CSS than “px.” Browser compatibility is easy to test for, especially with automated testing — most of the time, a feature is either supported or not. However, accessibility is much more difficult to test and even more difficult to get right — let alone to know when you’re getting it wrong. Even the giants of the internet have failings when it comes to accessibility, inadvertently alienating entire demographics. Nevertheless, neither ignorance nor unintentionality are excuses for discrimination, and if ethical motivations aren’t enough, there are increasing legal and economic pressures to support web accessibility.
Accessibility isn’t just about ability, either. Accessibility reinforces good practices in code and design, and it supports all users in a variety of circumstances. Sufficient contrast between text and background not only helps the visually impaired, for instance, but it also helps users in bright sunlight. Multimedia transcripts or descriptive alt text are important for screen readers, but they also help users with limited signal or with data restrictions. A consistent page layout is accommodating to any user, but especially for those who use assistive technologies.
If, for some reason, we still needed more reason to implement web accessibility, many of the same practices overlap with search engine optimization. Screen readers and search indexing web crawlers both access the page programmatically. Image alt text, page structure with roles and relationships clearly defined, and understandable text, for example, are important in both cases.
Given the many advantages of accessibility, I continue to be surprised by the lack of both awareness and implementation. As with any positive change, it’s important to continue to advocate for it, seek to understand it, and include its practices in your own work. Personally, I will continue doing my best to cultivate these goals for myself and throughout the Core10 culture.