Applying accessibility techniques to an unusable site is like putting lipstick on a pig. No matter how much you apply, it will always be a pig.
There are many ways in which a web site might be made inaccessible. Believe me, we’ve seen them all. Occasionally we are asked to conduct an accessibility evaluation on a site that is almost entirely unusable. Such efforts are usually pointless. No amount of technical accessibility can fix something that is not useful or usable.
Often the approach to poor usability is to throw more accessibility code at a site. Technical guidelines and solutions are used to attempt fixes for non-technical problems. The POUR principles are applied before considering usefulness and usability. And worse, poor usability is sometimes justified by declaring, “But it’s compliant!”
Types of accessibility lipstick commonly applied to usability pigs:
- Off-screen explanations or ARIA labels so a screen reader user might make sense of an overly complex form.
- Tabindex and keyboard interaction detection on <div> or <span> elements instead of using standard buttons or links.
- Custom widgets when native controls provide the same or sufficient functionality.
- Headers and id to markup a data table that is so complex a screen reader user is unlikely to ever comprehend it.
- Text-only or screen reader versions.
- In-page text resizing widget because a page does not support user-increased text sizes.
Many accessibility techniques can be avoided by considering usability first. Does the site make sense? Is it easy to use? Is it presented in a logical manner? Are the interactions standard and intuitive? Is the content useful and clearly written? Does the design enhance or detract from the core content and functionality?
The answers to these questions affect both usability and accessibility for everyone, regardless of disability. When designed or restructured for optimal usability for everyone, accessibility then becomes much easier, and is often found to have been addressed entirely in the usability fixes.
The ARIA Hammer
As ARIA is increasing in popularity, it is quickly becoming the accessibility lipstick of choice. And some sites are smothered in it, yet beneath it all, they are still just pigs. While ARIA is a powerful tool for filling the accessibility gaps for screen reader users, if all you have is an ARIA hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.
Next time you are faced with a challenging accessibility problem, instead of immediately considering accessibility techniques, take a step back and consider the usability issues that are almost always an inherent part of accessibility issues. Perhaps by considering usability first, you may find that accessibility is naturally addressed and that things work better for everyone.