Q&A with David Berman: Web Accessibility and Inclusive Design, Part I

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Q&A with David Berman: Web Accessibility and Inclusive Design, Part I

Yvette Perullo

These days information is right at our fingertips, literally, but it is not always accessible for everyone. Collectively we are moving towards becoming a more inclusive, welcoming, and accepting society. This includes our digital world, too.

Whether you’re a seasoned pro in web design or a rookie just entering the game, there’s always something new to learn about designing for great user experience that includes everyone. To get the inside scoop, I talked to website accessibility guru David Berman, an expert on inclusive interface design. David is an invited expert to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and International Advisor with the Global Alliance for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (G3ict). He serves on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Standards Committee and served as an advisor to the United Nations. David is a seasoned speaker, designer, communication strategist, and author with a giddy enthusiasm for “doing good.”

YP: What are some of the exciting projects you’ve been working on lately?

David Berman: Ontario, where I live, was the first part of the world to pass laws that insisted that not just government but private sector organizations comply with a certain minimum level of accessibility for websites. The legislation they passed was called the AODA [Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act] and it basically says that every organization of a certain size or larger in the province has to comply with various levels of  W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Norway made laws modeled on the Ontario model and Israel has now as well. But I think Ontario continues to be the case that is most practically implemented. 

I was asked to serve on the committee whose job it is to make the regulations even better. The committee, by law, consists of at least 50% of humans living with substantial disabilities. So you’ve got this committee meeting where you’re pretty well guaranteed to have at least one person for whom sign language is their native language, and you have at least one person who's been blind since birth, and at least one person who has acquired blindness. You've got people with developmental challenges and people with substantial mobility impairments. It's a really interesting meeting in its own right because we all have to communicate at a very high level. I’m coming to the table with all the nerdy knowledge of what actually has to happen to make a website work, for example, for someone who can't see or for whom English or French isn't their first language. Working on this legislation is also fascinating, and as a personal journey, it’s kind of cool to be involved in improving laws. But more substantively, as an activist, it's really interesting to push for that higher bar. 

YP: This has all of the best parts of design: co-design and participatory design. You have all these people talking about design — inclusive design. How has this process been?

David Berman: It’s fascinating in its own right because it’s like when we're putting on one of our courses about how to make a website accessible: we have to know how to make those events accessible themselves. Everything from the invitation to the learning materials, the speaker support, the presentation, the QA, to the follow-up – how do you make all of that walk your talk? This resulted in us developing an entire course which we now teach on how to do just that: accessible online meetings and courses. 

YP: What are your hopes for our governments to move forward with improvements on compliance issues?

David Berman: Here in Ottawa, the nation's capital, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a commitment that next year we're going to have a national accessibility law. The United States was the first country in the history of civilization to create law that recognizes that people living with disabilities and taking proper care is a human rights issue. The ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] was one of the best pieces of civil rights legislation ever, but it was implemented before there was an internet and so it never comes out and says, “Oh by the way, this includes online stuff.”

In fact, and sadly, just this month the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has quietly again delayed rulemaking as to whether the standards for accessible design for Title II and Title III organizations do indeed to include online content. (Title II covers state and local government organizations like your local public school. Title III organizations are private sector organizations which do business directly with the public: everything from an amusement park to a luggage store.) The DOJ had promised a rulemaking by now but that activity has been pushed onto the inactive list as part of the Trump administration's commitment to reducing the amount of regulation in the country. The DOJ keeps kicking this down the road. (view ruling)

The idea that we're actually going in the wrong direction on human rights, whether it's travel bans, or the transgender community in the military, or people living with disabilities, is just so sad.  

YP: Even the fiasco with the EPA and softening of the environmental regulations is backwards. And as we know, accessibility is part of sustainability and the greater good. 

David Berman: Yes, accessibility, inclusive design, is simply part of a whole, more broad approach to sustainability. People tend to focus on the environment when they think about sustainability, but it includes designing for everyone. When we design for the extremes, and we do it well, all of our users get a better user experience.

YP: What are some most common disabilities that you're coming across and what are some of the biggest challenges with these?

David Berman: Visual challenges are typically where we focus most online, and it makes sense as the largest bandwidth pipe into the human brain is typically through the eye. The second largest focus involves mobility challenges.  If someone can't use a mouse, either because they can't see the cursor or because they don't have the dexterity — in these cases we typically rely on some sort of switch device to move focus on the screen: either by pressing tab on the keyboard or with a foot pedal or via a Stephen Hawking cheek muscle switch. It’s important that sites are keyboard-only accessible, so that you can get everywhere and interact with everything on a site using just a keyboard or equivalent. After that, it's auditory challenges, especially if you have multimedia.

With our clients, we have a process where we look at their website, identify the all the issues, and then provide deep nerd recommendations on how to close every one of the big accessibility gaps we discover.  

YP: Coming from a design, or client perspective, how does fixing these gaps affect the aesthetic quality of the site? For instance, if a client has established brand guidelines or you’ve created this gorgeous color palette but it turns out that it’s not great for those with color deficiencies, how do you work around that?

David Berman: We have something called a “no trade-off approach.” We promise that every recommendation we make is either going to be neutral for the typical user or it's going to enhance the experience for all users.

This is a classic challenge because we work with a lot of designers. One of their biggest concerns is, of course, that their websites are going to suck after being made more accessible. And indeed we've seen horrible cases of this. It is the equivalent of adding a wheelchair ramp to the outside of a building when it’s done in such a way that is butt-ugly and it's hard for non-ramp users to enter. You see this occasionally—and it's bad—but there are ways to have an elegant ramp especially if you're building from scratch. For instance, with the color challenge, we argue that choosing color contrasts which comply with the minimum WCAG contrast rules will result in web pages that look great and that are legible even when printed out on a black and white printer, then faxed to a friend. Then you're making a better site for everyone. 

A legacy brand where the branding manual has color schemes that don't comply, are exempt. You don't have to exclude colors that are in a legacy branding manual. I could get into the nerdy lawyerly wording of WCAG, but we're hoping that when graphic designers are creating brand strategies in the future, they will have the wisdom to design for compliance.

YP: Is WCAG level AAA the ideal compliance standard? 

David Berman: Many people think that a WCAG AAA compliant website is something to strive for, but in fact it's really rare and usually not a good idea. It’s better to select certain AAA success criteria for a specific audience. If you're designing a website specifically for seniors or for blind people, you could then choose the specific AAA criteria that benefit that audience. But trying to apply all the AAA criteria will actually have you typically running into some tradeoffs … so it’s unrealistic for most private sector websites.

YP: Are there certifications or badges that organizations can apply for to show that the site meets certain web accessibility standards or that it complies with WCAG? 

David Berman: Totally. It’s kind of taking over my practice where over half of the work we do is auditing, giving recommendations and then coaching teams so they can learn to detect and close the gaps. We help them figure out which regulatory standard they have to meet and then help show them come up with a sustainable strategy to maintain an accessible site. Once they pass, there is a badge we issue them. We do this for Fortune 500s, governments, schools, and all sorts of organizations … and it's really satisfying.  

There are also certifications in the industry. There is now a certification from the International Association of Accessible Professionals (IAAP) headquartered in Washington D.C. I'm one of the hundred or so people to have this CPACC certification (Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies) through IAAP which is a general expertise of accessibility across the board. There is also now another more nerdy version of that specifically for web developers called WAS (Web Accessibility Specialist).

YP: How do you communicate the importance of accessible design to a small organization that may not have a budget for an accessibility team or to pay for the extra time necessary? What are the key points to make in defense of budgeting for accessibility?

David Berman: It’s really an investment. You're going to get a broader audience because more people are going to get your message or buy your products. And if you do it right your entire audience is going to have an easier time filling out a form or making a donation, et cetera. All these little problems that are annoyances to typical people are the real deal-killers to people living with disabilities. So when you fix the big problems, all of your users are going to benefit while you drive down the support costs of your other channels. When people can succeed on their own, your costs drop while user satisfaction rises. 

You’ll also get better and more relevant search results if you follow the principles of WCAG. This is critical because the Google search spider has the cognitive ability of maybe a three or four-year-old, so it can use all the help you can give it. 

Then of course there is the human rights argument. It’s simply the right thing to do. Good news is that the world is wonderfully increasing its expectations, so you really have to create accessible sites. Otherwise you may disappoint or even lose your audience.

There is the PR benefit, too, in that you'll be able to tell the world how proud you are that you're including everyone. That's good media. I mean who doesn't want more customers, a broader reach, lower costs, and a better user experience? 

There are some things that are going to be tougher when you’re taking accessibility into account. There's no question that captioning video that wasn't captioned before is extra work. But on the other hand, captioned video is searchable by search engines. 

The key is to make it a habit to build accessibility into products at every project stage, rather than strap it on as an afterthought.


Make sure to check out Part II of the Q&A with accessibility expert, David Berman, soon.

About the author

Yvette is an experienced design practitioner, educator, and sustainability advocate specializing in branding, UI/UX design, and print design for companies and nonprofit organizations.
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