Creating Web Content for the Disabled: A Call to Compassionate Action

Web Accessibility for the Disabled

As we all know, optimal web design requires accommodating sites for those with disabilities. Guidelines exist under the Americans With Disabilities Act to enhance the disabled ability to access web content.

Writing Beyond Profit

According to the CDC, millions of people are considered functionally disabled in the United States.  See the statistics. Over the course of my studies in web technology, design experts frequently encouraged making websites more accessible for the disabled. The motivating factor, however, usually centered on  the bottom line–you reach more people; you sell more products. You make more money.

The authors of respected publications emphasize that collectively, the disabled have millions of dollars to spend. Thus, in viable business models, it make good sense to target all consumers with disposable incomes. Experts offer the motivational carrot of increased profits to encourage making web content more accessible to the disabled. Yet, there exists a greater reason for paying attention to accessibility issues than just gleaning more money from this segment of the population.

Some Problems with Writing Content for the Disabled

What does creating better web accessibility mean for the web developer and the supportive cast that weave together good web content? It means that to truly meet the needs of the disabled, time, thought, and the necessary resources are provided in actualizing a better experience for all users.

Sounds easy enough, right? Yet, when the pressures of deadlines ensue, or fatigue sets in, it is tempting to slap text into the image and link fields that will meet the criteria, but doesn’t necessarily provide as high of a quality experience for the disabled user as could be provided.

Hard-coding captions into videos is labor-intensive and time-consuming. Revamping PDF files to be compatible with screen readers takes time. How does one justify the time and resources to do this, especially when others providing the monetary support may not see the value? How do we solve these issues? I believe the answer lies with greater awareness.

Our brains bias us to believe that others think like us, when in fact they may not. Another bias nudges us to hang out with people who look and actually do think like us. We also automatically think that our way of perceiving the world is preferred. When a group of people is markedly different than our own, we tend to ignore them, or even make fun of them and do things to create distance between our perceived beliefs.  Check out more information on brain biases. Therein lies part of the problem. We fail to look beyond the comfortable, and often, erroneous beliefs that shape the perceptions of our world.

The Need for Compassionate Web Design

How many of us have even taken the time to consider the world that a disabled or disadvantaged person experiences every day? How many of us have had the opportunity to maneuver around in a wheelchair, or to be led about the surroundings with a blindfold over our eyes? How many have experienced the frustration of not speaking the native language in a country and trying to solve a substantial problem? How many of us have donned thick gloves and tried to type on a computer keyboard to experience issues that some seniors encounter with a loss of dexterity in their fingers? How many of us have spent substantial time working face to face with those who we once thought were very different from ourselves, only to discover that they reflected the face of human kindness back to us?

A Gift of Increased Awareness

Lorelle Van Fossen, a WordPress instructor, recently shared a link with me that expanded the way I look at people with disabilities. Two sisters, both deaf from birth created a music video. They filmed the video in one of the girl’s rooms whose walls are covered with words and phrases that they and their friends had written.  At first I thought it rather strange, and then the instructor helped me to “see” the value in this type of creative expression in a way that was not initially apparent to me.

Lorelle explained that she likes to experience the video from a different perspective by simply stuffing earplugs in her ears, pretending not to hear at all, to crank up the volume, to place her hands on the table surface, and to feel the vibration of the music coursing through it. I learned that day to see how music can bring joy to the hearing impaired through feeling the music in a different way–something that prior to then, I had not even considered. Check out the video.

Web Design and the Bigger Picture

Why is seeing the world through the eyes of others even necessary in creating good design? It creates empathy for those who may struggle to experience the same world that comes easily for us. It allows us to walk in the shoes of those who also desire happiness in life, but perhaps encounter it from different, and at times, more difficult angles. It allows us to become more aware of the challenges facing others who may not readily think or act like us. More than anything, and this is the key reason, it enables us to create with greater compassion and inclusiveness for those who are different, and it allows us to write content that invites more people to feast at the table of life, exactly because we understand how to offer the bounty in ways where they can also benefit from it.

Building better websites for everyone strengthens community. It gives all users greater opportunity to access learning and things that can improve their quality of life. When we provide opportunities that strengthen the individuals in our collective communities, it also builds the global neighborhood. The internet and its technologies have the potential to empower people in ways that were impossible only 2 decades ago. As web designers, we have the opportunity and the privilege to provide more meaningful experiences for our disabled neighbors and human family. Improving web accessibility is not only about increasing the profits for our clients, but it is also an issue of showing respect and honor for all human beings.

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