Designing for Accessibility is Designing for Everyone - Heller Consulting

Designing for Accessibility is Designing for Everyone


In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act to make buildings and transportation accessible to individuals with disabilities, ensuring that they have the same access to structures and ways to get from one place to another as those with greater freedom of movement.

Lawmakers soon realized that same freedom must apply to information – the digital fuel that drives our society and economy. So, in 1998 Congress added Section 508, amending the Rehabilitation Act to eliminate barriers in information technology.

In the decades since the introduction of Section 508, the concept of universal accessibility has taken hold across the globe and embraced as what is now known as “universal” or “inclusive design.” However, the rapid evolution of wireless technology and the spread of mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets have outpaced the development of universally-accessible digital content and platforms.

Evolution of Design Tools

Fortunately, the evolution of design tools has made it easier to factor in designing for accessibility. For example, Microsoft’s design suite has an “accessibility checker” built in to help support accessibility to documents, slide decks, and other materials. Salesforce has a team dedicated to accessibility and developing universal design best practices. In fact, we’re finding that accessibility features are becoming increasingly popular with software users because they make manipulating systems and information easier and more convenient for everyone.

Just a few short years ago, lack of designing for accessibility might have been chalked up to an increase in cost and design complexity associated with adding functionality for users with special considerations. But today, the design tools to accommodate diverse needs are baked into many development suites, making it easier and more cost-efficient to design for accessibility. The real reason for lack of accessibility is more likely lack of awareness.

Striving to make software and data accessible for all

We recently worked with Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), a service organization that envisions a world with greater inclusion, opportunity, and independence by optimizing the unique capabilities of people and dogs. Our work with this organization was multi-faceted, beginning with a CRM roadmap and working with them to bring its program departments onto the Salesforce platform. Throughout the project, we were inspired by GDB’s dedication to its constituents and we learned from their passionate example to make everything accessible. This included the technology solutions we implemented to the documentation and presentation slides we delivered.

Our team’s key takeaway is that designing for accessibility is designing for everyone. We no longer ask ourselves “do we need to make something accessible?” it’s now “how do we design this for everyone?” That concept is built into our best practices as part of our commitment to inclusive design. We feel it’s important to share what we learned and encourage all partners in the nonprofit sector to commit to inclusive design.

Here are some ways that we’ve incorporated inclusive design into our project work to be effective partners with our clients and what we would recommend to other partners:

  • Consider how to work with the organization’s culture and etiquette around communication and respecting every user. For example:
    • Is there an expectation to send documents in advance?
    • Is there an expectation to include descriptions and context for graphics and photos during presentations or in deliverables?
  • Ask clients (or users) up front if there are any specific accessibility needs to take into account.
  • Ask if there are organizational policies around choosing vendors that are committed to developing accessible products.
  • Understand the tools that end users might utilize and consider how you might test your product to meet the requirements of those tools. Investigate free applications, settings, and browser extensions that can support this research, such as:
    1. Google Chrome Extensions for High Contrast
    2. Microsoft’s Check for Accessibility
    3. Accessibility settings in Apple and Android products
    4. Downloadable software, such as NVDA’s screen reader tool

We strive to give every user the tools they need to do their day-to-day work as effectively and efficiently as possible, including any accessibility needs users have. We’ve found this doesn’t actually take more time. Instead it is a matter of awareness, understanding, a willingness to learn, and a commitment to the needs of our clients.

About the Authors

Kate Bennet
Before serving nonprofit organizations with the Heller team, Kate worked with small businesses and nonprofit organizations for 18 years. Her work included responsibility for business processes in advancement for the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and it was there that Kate... Read More