The Importance of Designing for Accessibility

with Joy Shibata, Visual Designer
As a Visual Designer, Joy thrives on translating complexity into visual clarity and is passionate about centering equity in her approach to problem-solving and storytelling. At Intentional Futures, she is currently collaborating in participatory design spaces with students and teachers on several projects, with the goal of informing future products to better serve their needs. Her past work includes projects for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft, and Starbucks, as well as community-centered work for local nonprofits.
If we're trying to design and build things around inclusivity, belonging, and equity, making sure that accessibility is considered and not just an afterthought is extremely important.” -Joy Shibata


Tell me a little bit about your background in accessibility and how you’ve worked to integrate it in your work at Intentional Futures.


My background in accessibility begins during my time working at Microsoft defining brand elements and style guides, especially around use of color – digital elements, mostly. I began to dive deeper into accessibility at iF during our work with the Every Learner Everywhere Network. A lot of my work entailed making PDFs accessible which is hugely important for any document that is widely available online as a public resource.  Every Learner Everywhere is a network dedicated to advancing equity in higher education through advances in digital learning. Central to being equity-centered is making sure we are creating and distributing content with inclusivity in mind, and accessibility is a huge part of that. And when I say “accessibility,” I mean it in the broader sense of the word — not just thinking about screen readers, but urging educators and content creators to think about things like: “How accessible is this to students with poor internet connection or only a mobile device?” and it’s critical because for these students, this access will directly affect their grade. 

With equity at the forefront of this work, we knew it was necessary for us to put these principles into action ourselves, and a clear next step was making sure that all of the web and PDF resources we published were accessible. We took workshops on  accessible PDF design (as well as remediation) from PubCom. What we learned is that 1) It’s much easier to design for accessibility from the start than to fix what’s broken, and 2) accessibility is not a perfect science, and requires constant evaluation and learning. A lot of people want a checklist or an easy fix, but it’s a constant process, not just a one-and-done task. We ended up taking what we learned and making templates and guides of our process, and implemented it throughout the rest of our project work with the Every Learner Everywhere Network (and beyond — it’s definitely something that has extended into the way iF approaches this work in general).


Can you elaborate on how accessibility is important for equity? 


I think when most people talk about accessibility, they are often really only thinking of a few, highly visible scenarios like those related to physical or visual ability, or they’re talking about “accessible design” which relates more to the specific outcomes and guidelines that are recommended. So I just want to note first that when I talk about accessibility as a concept, what I’m really thinking about is closer to what’s considered “inclusive design” — less about checking the boxes and more of an embedded way of thinking and of approaching processes.  

There are lots of times when you use something, and you're like, this was not designed with me in mind, or they did not think about this situation. Sometimes it's like, ‘oh, they clearly just made this look good, but it's not practical for my needs’. I think everybody runs into that at some point. Especially now with the internet and everything being so widely distributed, it's apparent in many different ways. There's so many things we interact with and we don't even think twice about, but for some people, they are unable to access them because they aren’t designed for them. 

I think if you're trying to build a sense of belonging, failing to design for accessibility is very detrimental to that. It's a clear signal that ‘you don't belong here, we didn't think about you or design for you’. If we're trying to design and build things around inclusivity, belonging, and equity, making sure that these things are considered — and not just an afterthought — is extremely important. 


Are there some things that people reading this might be able to implement to make things more accessible for their employees, their users, their general stakeholders?


A lot of people tend to think about it as a checklist at the end of the process that one goes through to determine if a document meets those things. But if you're waiting until the end to check, then that's too late. You need to build in these processes to constantly be checking your work. There's also this mentality of oh, that's the designer's job, or that's so and so's job, they'll take care of it at the end, when there are things that every person in every part of the process can contribute to. 

One way to implement accessibility in a meaningful way is building it into processes themselves. Another thing that anyone can do is to make sure each team or discipline is aware of how they specifically can contribute to the accessibility process. Often the burden comes down to design, but there are many things that can be done by content writers or developers. 

A lot of these things are just best practices for content and design in general. For example, some ways to improve content accessibility is to ensure sure language is clear (e.g., not using jargon or idioms), and to organize content in a hierarchy that makes it easier to digest – in general, making things easy for people to read and understand is a core tenet of accessibility. 

Then there are also really specific things, like how URLs are written. Most folks tend to write something like, “click here”. But folks with screen readers see all of those links out of context. Imagine that you see a list of links, as kind of a table of contents almost, and they all just say “click here” — how unhelpful would that be? It makes navigating just that much more arduous.

Another simple way to contribute is providing alt text for images. I often find myself being the one to write those, but I don’t always have context on why those images were important or why they were included by the content writer. If the authors provided the alt text themselves, I wouldn't have to guess or check back with them to make sure I captured their intent. 


Anything else you’d like to share about accessibility? 


Accessibility goes beyond the obvious ones like colorblindness and screen readers. For folks who aren't neurotypical, or have light sensitivities, for example, things moving around on a page — ads, parallax scrolling, automatically playing videos, etc. — can be really jarring. There are also things like using certain fonts that are more easily read by folks who are dyslexic, or making sure actions don’t require really precise motor abilities, or giving people enough time to complete their tasks — all to say, it can be a lot broader than people recognize. 

There are things like including subtitles and transcripts — that's something that definitely does benefit people who are hard of hearing, but it also benefits anybody who's in a noisy space. I myself always have subtitles on when I'm eating, and now I can’t watch anything without them. It's all of these intentional things that help people navigate things just a little bit easier, or considers different contexts through which people are interacting with these things — in real life it's not always the one ideal scenario. 

Accessibility isn’t just for a small segment of the population — we all inevitably benefit from it throughout our lives. Think about what new things you might need to consider if you are temporarily injured. What about as you age, as we all do? Everyone will need some sort of  accessibility feature at some point in our lives, and there are so many we already use every day without even realizing it. 

Access the documents referenced by Joy to learn more about accessibility: 

Mismatch by Kat Holmes

Microsoft Inclusive Design

InDesign and PDF training through PubCom

Considerations for writing alt text

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