How can app and web developers better serve people with disabilities?

20 Jun 2018

Nancy Kastl. Image: Walker Sands

Standards expert Nancy Kastl on the need for app and web development teams to be more inclusive.

The internet is a source of connection, information and entertainment for everyone. From crowdsourced knowledge on Wikipedia and YouTube to new friendships formed on Twitter, the opportunities to bring people together are innumerable. All that aside, there are still people who cannot fully engage with the internet and digital tools due to accessibility issues, and what good is the internet if it doesn’t serve people of all abilities?

Nancy Kastl’s career has been dedicated to improving the quality of applications and websites through testing, with a special focus on ensuring software and applications meet global standards and are accessible for every user. Currently, Kastl serves as the testing services practice director at Chicago-based digital technology firm, SPR.

Web and app developers need to be more aware

She told that awareness is a critical problem for both web and app developers when it comes to building accessible websites and applications.

There is a huge untapped group of people who are often neglected, explained Kastl. “Working with individuals with disabilities, what we find is, individuals rely on using their laptops and mobiles as they may not go out shopping to a retail store, and/or look at insurance plans on their laptop using the internet, for example.”

There are a wide array of factors to consider for developers, from hearing loss and issues with motor skills to total vision loss and learning disabilities, among other considerations. The importance of standards cannot be overstated, Kastl stressed.

International standards body W3C’s recommendations for web content accessibility – WCAG 2.0 – are vital in providing software teams with considerations for their products to be compatible with the assistive technologies people with disabilities rely on.

Kastl said that often, the issue lies with the development specifications provided to development teams. The app sponsor or financial driver’s neglect to mention accessibility as a crucial development pillar means it is unlikely to then become part of the team’s actionable plan. It needs to become part of the scope of every build.

Larger teams may have diversity and inclusion departments pushing the accessibility agenda, but this may not always be the case for smaller firms. Even so, a single advocate in a workforce can be the person to drive the change. “You need an advocate and, of course, you need funding.”

Kastl continued: “Over the past five years, we have seen a growth of companies who are now thinking about accessibility. When I go back five or 10 years ago, the only companies that would have had this strategy would have had a community consciousness, while others were totally ignoring it.”

The increase in lawsuits for non-compliance with standards is also a major incentive for companies to comply.

Inclusion needs to be on the agenda

There are some very simple standards developers still neglect to comply with, said Kastl. “The most basic standard, this pertains to using a screen reader. As a sighted person, you see a photo, and right now sites are rich in images. Well, if you have vision loss and using a screen reader, the screen reader in essence is reading code, so when you come upon an image, it could say something like ‘1234810jpeg’. Do you know how that creates an experience for a person? A tag that could say ‘Friendly doctors waiting here to serve you’ could easily be provided.”

As websites and apps become much more rich in video content, this creates issues for people with visual and hearing impairments. Some videos can be very visual but have little speech to provide context.

Due to the push to provide a rich UX to sighted users, those with disabilities are often left behind. Users with disabilities relating to motor skills also have specific struggles. “Some individuals with motor skills can’t use a mouse and can only navigate with a keyboard,” Kastl noted but often, websites are designed in a way that doesn’t accommodate these individuals.

Mobile-specific standards need to improve

For a more accessible future, Kastl said that more work needs to be done to create specific standards for the mobile world, but it is happening. “Those sorts of gaps are being closed.”

She also has high hopes for voice-control technology, for all users. “I’m very optimistic … as we see the abilities to interact with software by voice – even for sighted people – evolve.”

Kastl added that the information on the standards is both detailed and public, and Apple and Android have done notably good jobs with the accessibility settings on their devices and ensuring apps can be used in conjunction with these.

Building accessibility into products should become another string to the bow of the team of developers. “They need to be aware and learn just like they learned how to code.”

Updated, 4.17pm, 27 June 2018: References in this article were amended to reflect the person-first approach to discussing those living with disabilities.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects