Creating truly accessible experiences for our users requires us to get past the dogma and take a more holistic approach to accessibility.

As part of the recent Barclaycard redesign when I was at Conchango, we were given the dual challenge of creating the most innovative credit card site in the financial services space while at the same time making it the most accessible. Working with John from AbilityNet (a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to making technology more accessible for those with disabilities) we learned some valuable lessons which changed my perspective on accessibility:
• Accessibility is not about checklists and validators
• Visual impairment is important but often gets a disproportionate amount of airtime at the expense of cognitive impairment
• Scenario-based testing is far more effective for judging accessibility than any kind of code-level semantic checking methods

“Accessible” is a fluid thing and highly dependent on context. As the credit crunch has clearly demonstrated, managing personal debt is a big problem to a lot of people. With up to 40% of the UK population suffering from some form of numeracy problem (Moser Report, 1999), “accessible” for a credit card site means being able to understand how much you owe, what you’ve got to spend, when you need to pay it back and what will happen if you don’t – even if you have numeracy problems. Just because the site can render on multiple devices and works well with a screen reader doesn’t make it accessible (although it is a good start) in this context. What was required in this case was a rich, visual experience which went beyond the traditional approach of just putting people’s statements online and provided a clear visual representation of their current credit position. We identified where users with numeracy problems were most likely to trip up and provided content and tools to counter it. It was a case where using Flash (in a restrained and functional way!) actually made the site *more* accessible, not less.

Much of today’s focus on accessibility is well-intentioned but myopic. Better browsers and more mature standards have done wonders for those with physical impairments in recent years but can actually work against us if we don’t take a holistic approach. Checklists and validators keep the developers honest but can breed a false sense of security.

User experience professionals need to see past technology and standards-focused accessibility and think in terms of real, dynamic, contextual experiences of people with real-life disabilities and goals.