Accessibility Q&A

Alexis Oksi & Laura Aalto16.6.2020ContentReading time 11 min

What have you always wanted to know about web accessibility? We asked our network to ask us anything, and now our accessibility experts give their two cents.

Accessibility is all about web services that are designed and implemented with all users in mind, including those with disabilities. Accessibility ultimately benefits everyone, as each of us can face different barriers throughout our lives.

The overall goal of accessibility is to ensure equal access to online services for all. But who is responsible for accessibility and how does Search Engine Optimization (SEO) fit into the picture? What rights do users have? In this post, our accessibility experts Alexis Oksi and Laura Aalto delve into these themes.

Do all web services have to be accessible even if they only apply to a certain target group?

Even when focusing on a particular target group, there are always disabled users among them: whether users are experiencing permanent barriers such as attention deficit disorder, or momentary barriers such as fatigue and hassle on a Friday afternoon. Good design and implementation take accessibility into account, and creating barriers is surely not anyone’s intention.

In addition to the principles of good design, Finnish law obliges those mainly in an official position to make web services compliant with accessibility requirements. The law is also partly binding on organizations and the private sector. You can find more information on the Regional State Administrative Agency, which explains who is affected by the law (in Finnish).

With operators covered by the law, the online service must, in principle, be accessible regardless of the target group. However, certain types of services are excluded from the requirements or have been granted longer transition periods. Such are, for example, intranets and map services. You can also check the instructions of the regional government agency about which services and contents are covered by law (in Finnish).

No impairment should prevent users from accessing services online. We have highlighted the importance of accessibility on our blog through concrete examples.

What is the difference between accessibility and usability?

Accessibility and usability go hand in hand. When we follow the principles of accessibility, we are also developing services that improve usability. Even though the main focus in accessibility is on users with disabilities, the same features usually make usability better for all. It can also help us detect barriers and limitations that we have not been able to identify before.

What is an accessibility audit?

An accessibility audit is aimed at finding out and writing down all possible barriers or limitations, mainly based on standards such as WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). The audit can help us map out all the needed changes, follow the progress and let our users know about the state of compliance with an accessibility statement.

What should an SEO specialist keep in mind when it comes to accessibility, when doing an audit, for example?

Most of the time SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and accessibility are really a perfect fit. Efforts in making visual content available in text format (for instance video transcriptions or text alternatives for images and graphs) benefit SEO and improve accessibility at the same time. The same goes for descriptive meta information, a good heading structure, as well as generally a good user experience.

What SEO specialists should be careful with is too heavy optimization. Loading the text with keywords that are not related to the page content or do not provide value for the user will only worsen accessibility. For example, adding alt attributes (alternative texts) for purely decorative images might be of value from an SEO standpoint, but will decrease accessibility and violate the WCAG guidelines. Page titles should also help the user to understand what kind of page they are on, and headings should remain descriptive so that users will find relevant content easily.

Can all web services be accessible?

Accessibility is a principle and a goal, around which guidelines, such as WCAG, are built. Nevertheless, the only true measure for web content accessibility is based on user experience. However, users rarely report to the service provider on every accessibility issue they face, so perfection is nearly impossible to reach. Additionally, the assistive instruments, technology and diverse barriers do change. 

With certain services, there may also be technical barriers that make the content inaccessible for some users. Nevertheless, constantly paying attention to accessibility, doing user tests and acknowledging feedback will at least get us closer to real accessibility.

Who can be responsible for accessibility? Is it always one expert or whose responsibility is it?

The trajectory of accessibility includes everyone: the client, project coordinator, content designer, user experience designer, visual designer, developer, tester, maintainer, and content editor. Everyone should get to know and learn about the possible issues and guidelines considering their own areas of expertise and discuss these, since accessibility as a whole cannot be managed by one expert. For example, creating a table in a form for comparing and choosing options requires the collaboration of an interface designer, content designer and developer to make the interface easy to use both visually and when using a screen reader.

When various experts from different fields are working together from the very beginning, resolving possible accessibility issues becomes much easier. It also makes it possible to tackle most of the issues along the way instead of having to make major compromises at the final stage. 

However, a dedicated accessibility expert can be of help in taking the first steps towards making an online service accessible. Additionally, it is usually a good idea to nominate someone in the trajectory or organization to be in charge of monitoring the overall accessibility and reporting any shortcomings to the development teams. The person can also be responsible for training new employees and informing product owners of the requirements, for example.

How is it possible to combine beautiful design, quality content, and well-built technology with accessibility requirements? Does accessibility mean boring online services?

Even when not taking accessibility into account, it is common for development teams to have certain frameworks within which they aim to provide beautiful and functional content. The framework is mostly formed by the thought processes of the people involved in the development. Bringing accessibility into the mix re-shapes the framework, but while adding more limitations to it, it also broadens and expands it with the understanding of users’ diversity. Accessible services can be beautifully designed, have exquisite content and great structure – and above all, they are easy to use for everyone.  

It is only natural to feel that it is restricting for the design process when you need to take into account all the accessibility requirements and are forced to shake off some old habits and change your way of thinking. However, at best, familiarizing yourself with accessibility can help you expand your work outside the famous box and understand the diversity of users. In the end, everyone benefits from accessible services, since every one of us has at least occasional barriers.

How has the attitude towards accessibility changed? What will the future for accessibility look like?

Accessibility has been the default value for example in new construction work for a long time already. On the other hand, online accessibility has attracted publicity only during the last few years, when the legislation on it has been advanced around the globe. 

Some resistance to change has of course emerged, but along with increasing awareness and new skills, accessibility will quickly turn into something that people are happy to work on and can be proud of.

We believe that accessibility can make services more user-centric, and that user-friendliness and accessibility are the foundation of success for online services. When the news of success stories and know-how spread, accessibility will become one of the default values for online services.

How much does it cost to make accessible web services?

The price tag mainly depends on what needs to be done, what kind of web service or mobile application we are dealing with, and what is the required amount of repair work. For example, there’s a difference whether we are creating a completely new service or providing an accessibility audit and fixing the shortcomings in an existing web service.

When thinking about the amount of work used for accessibility, it is important to take into consideration where the design and development processes are going. The earlier you include accessibility, the more seamlessly and faster you can build an accessible service. If you need to fix the accessibility features of an existing service, it can take much more time compared to ensuring accessibility for a new product or service if you already start thinking about it in the concepting phase. In addition, the size of the service as well as the complexity and amount of content have a significant impact on the workload. Making a blogging site accessible is considerably easier than doing the same for an entire e-commerce platform.

Investing in accessibility right from the start pays off. Most likely it is an investment that will pay for itself. However, it is also possible to improve accessibility for existing services even with a smaller budget. For example, an audit or focusing on the most critical barriers is a good start.

What rights do I have as a user? Can I demand accessibility?

We all have the right to give feedback to web services on their accessibility. First, you need to contact the service provider who is responsible for the web service or mobile application. You can give feedback on all those services that are affected by the law on accessibility requirements. They should provide an answer within 14 days. If you are not satisfied with the answer, you can then contact the regional administration office and make a complaint or request for clarification. At best, your feedback can help with taking accessibility into account and give new ideas to the service provider who may not have been able to see the diversity of users.

It is good to keep in mind that, at the moment, web accessibility laws only apply to certain service providers. In addition, there are also a few differences between services and when the laws will apply to them (in Finnish). For example, mobile apps only need to be compliant from June 23, 2021 onwards. You’ll find more information in Finnish on your rights on the Regional State Administrative Agencies website.

Want to hear more about how our experts could help your organization in web accessibility? Get in touch and let’s talk:

Text: Alexis Oksi, Senior Developer and Laura Aalto, UX Designer