Accessibility starts before day 1

3 min read

Digital accessibility is primarily determined by the code and thus by the front-end developer of a piece of software. He must build up his knowledge early on and incorporate it right from the start. Why? Our field report will give you the details.

Accessibility can only be successfully implemented in software projects if, on the one hand, it is considered from the very beginning and, on the other hand, the project team has the necessary know-how. The latter in particular concerns UX designer and front-end developers. Since primarily the code is key for digital accessibility, it is the front-end developers who have to do the main part of the work to make a software project accessible.

Lack of education

Good intentions and a most sophisticated design are worthless if front-end developers do not have the necessary knowledge and skills to implement the accessibility requirements. Unfortunately, this is still often the case. While certain universities of applied sciences take accessibility into account in the training of front-end developers, the topic is hardly present in the IT curricula of the ETH and universities. As a result of this deficit, front-end developers often feel unable to cope with the task due to the lack of knowledge – and accessibility is neglected once again. However, those responsible for the project usually attribute this to time or budgetary constraints. Let’s be clear: Accessibility should be a mandatory part of the IT curricula of ETH, universities and universities of applied sciences, so that future software developers and engineers can acquire the basic knowledge during their studies.

There's no point in googling

Accessibility cannot be «quickly built in» two weeks before go-live. Similar to the student who starts studying the night before the exam and shudders to realize that he has no chance of passing the upcoming exam, developers cannot close their knowledge gaps by means of a Google search shortly before the project is completed. 

Overlays and plugins – rather a curse than a blessing

Also the recently spread statement that an accessibility supporting framework solves all problems must be relegated to the world of half-truths and myths. Of course, frameworks and other tools that favorably influence accessibility and help identify barriers early on are indispensable. However, it is a fallacy to rely solely on these tools. Also so-called accessibility overlays and plugins are more of a curse than a blessing, because they create more problems than they solve.

The experience and expertise of renowned accessibility experts, as well as feedback from people with disabilities who want to use your product or service are essential. How much is this knowledge worth to you?

Digitalization without accessibility does not create added value

Let me – software engineer, visually impaired – give you a sample: Like often before, I ended up on a virtual construction site. This time it’s the web shop of a major Swiss retailer. The website is difficult to navigate with the screen reader. Yet, I somehow manage to find the products I’m looking for and add them to the shopping cart. The checkout process unfortunately includes a few insurmountable hurdles. For example, it is impossible for me to choose the desired delivery date and time, as the screen reader is neither able to read the current selection nor a change of it. The usual checkbox to tick in order to accept the general terms and conditions has been replaced by a button. Too bad that this button has also been implemented in a screen reader resistant way – clicking it has no effect at all – and thus is completely useless. I have to accept that I am wasting my time. I leave both the shopping cart and the web shop. Who knows, maybe I will have more luck with a competitor’s shop.

Considerable potential for web shops

I have kindly and benevolently informed the major Swiss retailer about the obstacles in the online store – unfortunately in vain. It would be interesting to know how much revenue the provider loses over a year due to abandoned shopping carts in the web shop. According to the accessibility study by «Access for all» published in November 2020, only 10 out of 41 web shops are sufficiently accessible. Therefore, it’s high time to take the topic seriously and invest in accessibility so that UX designers and front-end developers can meet these requirements. After all, nothing comes for free – neither more customers nor more profit. The old country lore applies also here: «Sow first, then reap!»

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Published June 8, 2021

Written by

Picture of Werner Hänggi
Werner Hänggi

Senior Software Engineer