Your Website is Not a Historic Building: Lessons for the Digital Age

A blind woman in a green shirt uses earbuds and an iphone

For any experience to be truly inclusive, it shouldn’t be that one person has to experience it in a remarkably different way. Accessibility should be the baseline—the bare minimum.

My vision for the future of web design is radical inclusivity—accessibility that is so interwoven with design that you don’t know it’s there unless you need it. Like a crosswalk signal with auditory cues that lets your Blind neighbor know it’s time to cross—and that sometimes lets you know it’s time to cross if your head is buried in your phone—accessibility design can benefit everybody.

I want a world where accessibility allows for everyone to have equally functional and beautiful user experiences, both on the web and in real life. True inclusivity goes above and beyond the website overlays that are offered today as an easy fix. I know we can do better, and I want to explain why.

Websites Are Not Historic Buildings

In the U.S., we have rules set up in the ADA that require certain kinds of buildings to meet certain minimum standards for access. However, the “minimum” is often subpar. Using the ADA example, let’s say someone in a wheelchair is invited to dinner.

If the restaurant is in a historic building built prior to the ADA, there might be steps going up the front of the building. But, since it’s an old building and wasn’t designed for accessibility, they have to find a different way of implementing ADA laws. The person in a wheelchair might then have to go down an alleyway, past dumpsters, through a narrow kitchen, and take the elevator before finally getting to the dining area. And sure, according to ADA standards, the restaurant is accessible at a bare minimum. But the experience of getting to the restaurant sucks, and it is radically different for someone in a wheelchair than for those of us who are able-bodied.

In the digital space, we have more room for change and growth than a 150-year-old building—overall, we can do better. Yet, when it comes to accessibility overlays, certain companies are choosing not to do better. By applying one-size-fits-all retrofits to websites, they are taking a huge step backward in accessibility. Today, I want to explain why that is and what the alternatives are.

The Problem With Overlays

 Accessibility overlays are a huge problem.

Many people in the Blind community use the internet, and they’re able to do so because they already have tools on their computers and smartphones that allow them to access whatever they need. Whether it’s email, Facebook, Chrome, or whatever else, they already have tools that allow them to adapt to their digital environment. Like someone who uses a cane or a wheelchair, they know how to use the tools that work for them.

What happens when they encounter an accessibility overlay? If there’s an overlay, the website is not in a form that is built to allow their tools to read the text to them. They then have to click on something else in order to activate another tool. So in addition to experiencing a new learning curve, their current tools are obsolete, and sometimes, there’s a complete mismatch in the way their tools are built and the accessibility overlay is built.

While there is a consensus on accessibility overlays by a broad swath of users, it always bears repeating that the disability community is not a monolith. Even if others have benefitted from accessibility overlays, there still should not be huge swaths of the Blind community pointing to errors and issues. For further information about what this looks like, I highly recommend this write-up by real users showing how accessibility overlays can result in lawsuits as well as this post by The A11Y Project.

I bring attention to accessibility overlays in order to point to a vision: that users have an experience as uniform as possible across ability levels. Thankfully, this isn’t the first time we’ve faced this question.

Creating Unified Website Experiences: A Case Study

If you were on a Razr or a Blackberry in the early 2000s, you might remember the primitive (and expensive!) internet that existed on your phone. We were scrolling through entire websites with arrows and typing status updates with our dialing pads. It was cool because it was new, but let’s be honest—it was an awful experience. The websites on your phone lacked many of the same features that the desktop version had. Pictures wouldn’t load, you had to scroll horizontally and vertically, or you used a subpar version of the website at a mobile subdomain.

In short, websites either weren’t available at all, or they were relying on mobile versions that didn’t provide a great experience for everyone. More importantly, there wasn’t a unified experience.

Today, most developers use responsive web design. The term was coined by a developer named Ethan Marcotte in 2010. He published an article in A List Apart where he listed the three most important parts of creating a responsive website: fluid grids, flexible images, and media queries. Without going too deep into the technical aspects, websites no longer need a separate mobile version. Websites are designed around the fact that there are users arriving at their websites on different devices.

When responsive web design first came out, I remember attending a workshop and I’ll never forget when the instructor said that the earliest websites were accessible and responsive. Why? Because they were just text.

Now don’t get me wrong—we don’t want to try to go back to HTML1. We want beautiful websites with striking images, and we want an attractive and functional experience for all users. Thankfully, Marcotte’s framework for responsive web design has made this possible with various screen sizes.

A Call to Action

It’s been 13 years since responsive web design was invented and revolutionized the web. The accessibility overlay technology is relatively young, only gaining traction within the past few years. They are billed as an easy solution for those with disabilities trying to access websites, but my hope is that in the next decade, people will come to realize that it’s as backward as having a barely functional mobile version of a website. 

The challenge, of course, is that the abled community is the majority of the population and therefore has the most sway and influence in web design.

Beyond abled users being the majority of users used in A/B testing, abled users are also the majority of engineers. Everyone thinks about themselves as if they are the average or model user experience. At Unity, we work with our clients to help them think outside of their own experiences and get into their audience’s heads. You may like a pink background, but does your audience? The trickiest thing, however, is that there is no one “audience”—there are multiple audiences, and the needs of each sub-audience must be considered for truly functional web design.

In my vision, the future of accessibility is more empathetic. Engineers and users are thinking about others and not just themselves. I envision a cultural shift that prioritizes radically inclusive web design—websites that aren’t like historic buildings but instead build in accessibility in such a way that it improves the experience for everybody, with or without disabilities.

If you’re curious about examples, you might be surprised when you imagine what radically inclusive design looks like—for the most part, it involves features you might have never even noticed.

  • Curb cuts: Dips in the sidewalk and street are designed for wheelchairs, but they help people with strollers and bikes as well
  • Zooming in on text: Helpful for small text as well as visual impairment
  • Voice to text, text to voice: It’s amazing how many people I hear on the street dictating messages these days just because it’s faster
  • Grayscale Screes: While this feature is intended for those with colorblindness and other visual impairments, many people have started using this setting to make their phones less addictive.
  • Captions: Essential for Deaf folks and some neurodivergent folks with auditory processing issues, and increasingly, hearing and neurotypical individuals are using them as well.  

The truth is that disability can impact anybody. People get temporary disabilities all the time—if you break your hand, you might need to rely on text dictation. If you sprain your ankle, you might benefit from the elevator. And more than that, those of us who are lucky enough to live long lives will usually need some accessibility devices at some point in our lives. 
Disability can impact anyone, so we need to design our websites—and our world—with radically inclusive design. If you’re interested in how you can make your website functional, accessible, and beautiful, don’t hesitate to reach out to us for a consultation