Technical accessibility doesn't guarantee usable accessibility

When developers focus on technical aspects of web accessibility they don’t necessarily achieve usable accessibility. While their websites pass technical accessibility tests, they are absolutely inaccessible for people with cognitive disabilities. That does not really help the client nor does it help the disabled.

Technical accessibility is essential mainly for people with vision problems – a website has to be coded in so that screen readers and Braille devices can interpret it. And it must allow people with physical disabilities (e.g. who use a mouse stick to tap on the keyboard and navigate the site, or elaborate technologies such as eye-tracking software) use the website.

Good usability is important for people with cognitive disabilities and helps them to easily understand the site. These are people with learning problems, attention deficit disorders, short-term memory loss and let’s not forget people with English as a second language, or any one stressed out to the max after a long week in the office. For them a usable website is one that is logically organized and written in a simple language.

What do you address first – technical or usable accessibility?

Applying accessibility techniques to an unusable site is like putting lipstick on a pig. No matter how much you apply, it will always be a pig.

There is no point of trying to improve technical accessibility if the website is poorly organized and written in marketing jargon. These questions always help figure out if usable accessibility is the issue:

  • Does the website make sense?
  • Is it easy to use?
  • Is it organized in a logical manner?
  • Is the content clear and understandable for general public?
  • And, does the design compliment the site or is it distracting?

Many (costly) accessibility techniques can be avoided by addressing common usability issues. In fact, when we review websites for accessibility compliance, in 70% of cases websites have usability issues and only 30% have technical problems. The reason is quite logical. The main accessibility principles match the principles of on-site search engine optimization (SEO). So, companies that invested into on-site SEO have a well-optimized and almost accessible web system.

It’s not accessibility that makes a website usable; it’s usability that makes it website accessible. That’s why it is good to have a designer or a consultant who understands both website usability and accessibility when developing an accessible site.

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