While we certainly talk a good technical talk in the accessibility world, the foundation of all our work is empathy. Empathy for our users, and empathy for our clients, is fundamental to why we do what we do.

The world of digital accessibility is laden with the language of compliance, inclusive design, clean code, and screen readers. So much so that sometimes we forget what really lies beneath our work in accessibility. Why do we do what we do? How do we get people on board with creating accessible sites, products, and services? The answer to these can be found in one word: empathy.

As designers and developers, it’s essential that we include empathy in all our decisions. If your software is not usable for some or all of your users, why are you making it? The people who use your software are the reason you’re making it. You’re not a jerk – we can tell. If you understood how people with disabilities encounter (and sometimes struggle with) your website or application, you’d want to fix it. The more you understand, the greater the empathy you will have.

Foundational empathy

a young woman works at two Apple desktop computersThe very first time I observed a person using a screen reader with a web product I had designed, my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She was unable to perform an essential function of the product, and she thought she was doing something wrong. As I’m fully sighted, I could see the solution right in front of my face, but she had no way of navigating to it. Ever since that day, I’ve been advocating for including accessibility in design and development practices. In my time at Simply Accessible, I’ve observed many more usability sessions with people of varying abilities, but I’ll never forget that first time. It was life-changing for me.

As defined by Merriam-Webster, empathy is the capacity for understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

Everyone on the Simply Accessible team spends our days being aware of and sensitive to the needs and wants of users. We pay particular attention to how varying abilities may change those needs and wants. For example, when a modal window appears on a page, and keyboard focus is not moved into the modal, a person who only uses a keyboard who is sighted will see the modal, but will not be able to access any interactive elements within it, or close the window. The same issue affects non-sighted people who use a screen reader in a different way – they will select the link to open the modal, but they won’t know it opened at all, and they cannot read any of the content. In this example, the root and the solution of the issue are the same, but the issue experienced is different, depending on ability.

You may think it’s awareness and technical knowledge that fixes a situation like that, and you’d be right. But beneath that awareness is always empathy.

Show me an accessible website, product or service, and more often than not you are showing me a designer or developer who cares, deeply, about the user experience.

Inclusive empathy

two women looking at a Mac desktop computer monitorWe had just started reviewing issues that we had reported on their website. I could tell by the question that our client was overwhelmed and didn’t know where to begin. I could also tell she was feeling defeated, and we hadn’t even begun solving her company’s accessibility issues. I feared they were ready to throw in the towel, and we’d really only just gotten the towel out.

“What do you think about creating a separate website for our users with disabilities?” the client asked me, not five minutes into our review session.

I knew we needed to find a way to calm their fears and restore their confidence. I also knew they needed to get their accessibility issues resolved–and soon.

The empathy came out in full force–this time, for the client. As a team, we worked with them on a custom approach to get their own development team started.

Flash forward to today, and their development team is in full swing, well on their way to making their website a welcoming experience for all–no separate website required.

The empathy that’s part of our everyday work at Simply Accessible extends to how we approach our clients. Our clients’ desire to work with us is due to varying motivations. Some are overwhelmed. Some are scared. Most don’t know where to begin. But all have a problem they need solved. We need to understand where each client is coming from, and include empathy in our work with them, for them.

Expansive empathy

When working with clients, we encourage them to expand their own empathy for their users with disabilities. We do this by simply explaining what kinds of issues may happen on their website/app, and what steps people need to take to remedy the issue (if possible). We can tell our clients which technical standard or best practice that they are not complying with until we’re blue in the face, but it’s always the real-life user stories that get through to people.

When we see a group of <a> anchor tags without valid href attributes, there are several ways we could choose to report the issue to our client:

  • The links on the page are not keyboard accessible.
  • The links on the page do not comply with WCAG success criterion “2.1.1 Keyboard.”
  • People with mobility/dexterity issues, who rely on a keyboard, are not able to select the links, because they are not keyboard accessible.

Our team will always choose the third option, explaining what a real user will experience. When you understand the reality your users are facing, you will be motivated to create better site experiences for everyone. By helping our clients in this way, we’re expanding our empathy to include them, which inevitably ripples out to affect their users in a deeper and more attuned way.

The best we can be

five fists bumping together over a deskThe next time you’re engaged in a discussion about accessibility and it doesn’t budge beyond the technical, remember that beneath it all is empathy. The more empathy we have, the better we become at making things accessible. The more awareness we build by demonstrating to clients the need for accessible sites, products, and services. The more understanding we are when working with clients who might be overwhelmed as they start their accessibility journey. And, the more effective our clients become at creating sites, products, and services that meet the needs of everyone.

Upping the empathy quotient among decision-makers, designers, and developers is integral to ensuring the creation of a digital world for everyone.