Diversity & Inclusion
DEI / Disabilities / Engineering / Media

How to boost accessibility, according to The Washington Post’s first accessibility engineer

Holden Foreman is the first person at the media conglomerate to hold the title. He has some suggestions for other engineers and designers.

The Washington Post's office at One Franklin Square. (Photo by Flickr user Victoria Pickering, used via a Creative Commons license)

In 2023, boosting accessibility is becoming a regular to-do list item for plenty of tech teams.

Right now, though, most websites aren’t accessible in one way or another. According to WebAIM, a nonprofit based out of Utah State University, 96.8% of home pages don’t meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. This is why media giant The Washington Post brought on an engineer in January dedicated solely to accessibility. Holden Foreman, who joined The Post as an engineering intern in 2020 before taking on a full stack role, said that he hopes to focus on maintaining up-to-date tech and educating colleagues on accessibility practices.

But even without a dedicated accessibility engineer on staff, there’s plenty that developers and designers can do to improve access to their websites. Foreman noted that many have already started embracing accessibility tech practices like alternative text. Still, he said it’s important to recognize that true accessibility is about much more than that — and that it looks different for everyone.

“There are many different types of disabilities, including temporary and situational disabilities — like a broken arm, bad internet or loud surroundings — that change how people interact with journalism,” Foreman said.

Some, for example, might be unable to use a computer mouse because of a motor disability and rely on a keyboard to navigate pages and content. But many sites and apps are built assuming that users can hover a cursor and click and drag items on the screen, thus making it inaccessible.

A headshot of Holden Foreman, who wears a blue zip-up and stands in front of a few apartment buildings.

Holden Foreman. (Courtesy photo)

Identifying issues on your site also requires not relying solely on legal standards (which, to be clear, most websites don’t meet). Engineers need to be conversing with actual users with real accessibility needs, Foreman said. While there are both manual and automated tests that engineers and designers can implement, he noted that it’s important to figure out how people use your site in particular.

Foreman has a few suggestions to achieve this: First, hire people with disabilities who can tell you what’s not working from the get-go. He recommends hiring people for accessibility-specific roles, if possible, because it’s a big job. He also suggests carving out specific time for accessibility research and discussions, as well as getting those aforementioned real people into the conversation.

“Accessibility technology, resources and expectations are constantly changing,” Foreman said. “It is essential to learn how different people are actually using your products so that you can identify opportunities for improvement.”

But as designers and engineers move forward, Foreman noted that singular initiatives aren’t enough to create true accessibility. Even something that works and meets industry standards right now might not in a few years.

“Accessibility is an investment and is always evolving. Sitting down and reading all the standards that exist, or writing a bunch of checklists, will certainly help but will not lead to sustained success,” Foreman said. “New features, changes to existing ones and other factors mean that accessibility work is never really done.”

Companies: The Washington Post

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