Accessibility: give yourself a little shake

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Earlier today I was reading about the Accessibility Jam, an event for game developers. Like most web designers, accessibility is such a fundamental part of how I work that it's become routine. That's not necessarily a bad thing—good habits are nothing to be ashamed of—but it's nice to have your routine shaken up once in a while.

I think it's fair to say that compared to the web design industry the game development industry is only just beginning to think of accessibility as a mainstream concern. In a lot of ways though, the accessibility challenges facing game designers are the same as those facing web designers. Games, like websites (and lots of games are played in the browser), rely on input devices—keyboards, mice, gamepads—which are optimised for people with good mobility, and output devices—monitors, televisions, tablets, phones—which are optimised for people with good eyesight.

What really struck me most about the way in which the organisers of the Accessibility Jam explained accessibility was the simple way in which they went about it, and how relevant their explanation is to web design.

For a web designer, accessibility testing means referring to a complex set of guidelines which are dense and read a bit like legalese, with clauses, sub-clauses, success criteria, compliance level, sufficient techniques and oh look this has become a box-ticking exercise. I'm not criticising the guidelines; they're grounded in reality, well written, and as clear as they could possibly be when taking into account all the exceptions, legal obligations and different technologies which need to be considered. And those boxes definitely need to be ticked. I can't judge whether a colour combination has sufficient contrast by sight alone, and I can't recite the whole lot from memory.

But it's also a very abstract document, and that makes it easy to forget that it was written to address real problems faced by the real people who are out there using our websites. For instance, we all know that it's important that we write our code in a way which creates a logical tab order, but 'logical tab order' is such an innocuous little phrase that it makes it easy to forget that the consequence of getting it wrong is someone, somewhere, thumping their keyboard in frustration because they've just hit the tab key and found themselves on a part of the page where they didn't expect to be.

Which brings me back to the Accessibility Jam. Their two key principles are 'communicating information in multiple ways, such as icons as well as colour, or text as well as speech' and 'offering players some flexibility in how they play.' And here's what they wrote in their 'Top Tips' section:

  1. Keep controls as simple as possible - Taps and presses are easier for gamers with motor impairments than gestures and complex combinations.
  2. Give players as much time as they need to read text - Ensure players who have difficultly reading don’t miss out on important information by dismissing text prompts on a player action rather than on timer.
  3. Ensure important elements are easy to see - Use high contrast visuals with interactive elements clearly highlighted, and use well spaced mixed-case text in a clear typeface.
  4. Avoid communicating important information by colour alone - Use symbols, shapes or patterns in addition to colour, to avoid excluding colour-blind gamers.
  5. Avoid communicating important information by sound alone - Include gamers with hearing impairments by reinforcing audio prompts with visual prompts, and reinforcing speech with captions.

Switch the word gamer for the word user, and nearly every single word of that applies to web design. I haven't thought about accessibility in such a human way in a long time, and it's nice to take a step back and look at it with fresh eyes again. So, if you're a web designer and you're reading this, go and have a look at the Accessibility Jam resources page. Our own guidelines are so familiar to us by now that it's easy to forget the reason why they were written. Reading another creative industry's guidelines, especially one with so many similarities, is a good way to remind yourself.