Find out why you should involve users with disabilities and how to get them involved with your web development project.
Understanding your users, what they expect from your website, the limitations they face in using your site, the strategies they employ to overcome obstacles in your site and their ability to complete target actions plays a key part in assessing whether your website achieves its purpose.
That includes users with disabilities.
It makes sense that your understanding of your users — and the effectiveness of your site — will necessarily be limited if you do not actively include users with disabilities in your understanding.
Why you should involve users with disabilities
Empathy will get you a certain way towards that understanding, but only so far. Research is also valuable, and will certainly broaden your outlook on accessibility and deepen your knowledge, but it also is limited in how it can help you understand accessibility in action. Bringing in professional accessibility expertise will help you solve web accessibility issues, but even that will not give you a practical understanding of how your users with a disability use your site.
The only way to really understand how your users with disabilities interact with your website is to take the direct approach: ask them.
Involving people with disabilities in your planning process, including them in formal evaluation processes, observing them using your website — and other websites — and talking with them about their impressions is simply the best way to get an understanding of what you need to do to make your website accessible, whether that's creating a new website or improving an existing one.
Who should be involved
Because the term "disability" includes the effects of such a range of impairments — sensory, physical, cognitive: all to varying degrees, in a range of manifestations that may be constant or occasional — the logistics of such involvement might seem daunting.
In considering the effects of disability on how users experience your website and any barriers to its content, you should particularly seek to understand the experiences of people with:
- vision impairments ranging in effect from mild to severe, including those with colour blindness, contrast sensitivity, hyperopia (long-sightedness) and blindness, including those relying on a range of assistive technology
- mild to severe motor difficulties, including those relying on a range of assistive technology
- specific learning disabilities, including dyslexia (word disability) and dyscalculia (maths disability)
- mild to severe hearing impairments, including those who use assistive technology and those who are Deaf
- cognitive impairment, including people with mild intellectual and general learning disabilities
How you can find users with disabilities
There are several approaches to finding users with disabilities willing to participate in the planning and implementation of your web accessibility project:
There are many organisations that provide support, advocacy and information to people with disabilities and their families. National peak bodies tend to have newsletters, website and other information channels through which you can invite participants.
Chat forums on topics associated with living with a disability are a great source of mutual information-sharing and support for people with disability from a local level to a global one, and may allow you to post your invitation or request.
Local service providers
If you are seeking on-site participation of people with disabilities in your evaluation and planning processes, you may find people in your local area by talking to the people who provide them with goods and services to assist their independence, from independent living centres to pharmacies that stock assistive devices.
Tertiary students with disabilities can be a particularly useful group to involve in your evaluation and planning as they tend to be familiar with the web — both in terms of understanding the technology and also in being comfortable with concepts such as ecommerce and social networking. For that very reason, you should not rely on such participants alone or risk getting a skewed perspective on your site’s accessibility.
Groups from national peak bodies through to local community groups can be a way to invite the participation of older people, whose experience of age-related disability will be a valuable source of input for you. People in this group are often less comfortable with new technology and web concepts. This group also puts into perspective the difference between disability (most older people do not identify as people with disability) and accessibility (many older people do have accessibility needs).
How you can involve users with disabilities
Most of the ways in which you can involve users with disabilities in the processes you need to undertake to ensure your website's accessibility involve some choices on your part.
In-house or externally managed?
Bringing in an out-of-house web accessibility professional can be advantageous. Not only do they bring expertise in the subject matter but also in the procedures involved. They may also have access to groups of people with diverse accessibility needs that they can draw on for user participation. Factors that will influence whether you manage the process of including people with disability in your processes or bring in a professional include budget, timeframes, the expertise available to you in-house and your contacts inn recruiting users with disabilities.
On-site or remote?
People with some kinds of disability are effectively housebound. The web and the devices they use to access the web may become a vital link between them and the outside world. Using hardware and software to allow them to be involved with your planning and evaluation processes remotely will give you particular insights into their accessibility needs. Equally, there is great value in both observing people actually using your website and in being able to discuss it onsite with them face to face.
Paid or voluntary?
You are asking people to give you their time and convey their experiences to you. While many people will be happy to be involved without payment, you should ensure that the costs of their participation are met. Making even a small payment available can have a positive effect in making it a more formal arrangement undertaken in a more businesslike manner.
Individuals or groups?
Obtaining the input of users with disabilities at a one-to-one level can help to keep the process focused on your outcomes while allowing for the kind of intimate discussion that might be inhibited by a group setting. On the other hand, a small group of users with disabilities can often provide a more dynamic context, allowing for greater comparisons of their experiences.
Many of the factors discussed here apply to any process seeking to include users in website planning, implementation and evaluation processes. You should be aware that including users with disabilities in these processes does demand consideration of their particular needs and circumstances.
- Make sure the premises you use offer appropriate access and facilities
- Understand that planned actions may take longer with users with disabilities
- Take into account the communication needs of users with disabilities
- Fatigue can be a greater issue for user with disabilities
- Meet any needs associated with the use of assistive technology
The simple reality is that there is enormous benefit from involving user with disabilities when you assess your existing website and improve it for accessibility or plan and implement a new accessible website. The user experience for people with disabilities will give you a bottom line understanding that will underpin the general usability of your website as well as how it conforms to the requirements of WCAG 2.0.