Table of contents
2. The development of web design and it’s status as profession
3. Disability and the concept of accessibility
4. Legal obligations about web accessibility: EU-directive
5. Professional ethics about accessibility
6. Accessible design in practice
The World Health Organization estimates that about 6 to 10 out of every 100 people live with a disability. It is estimated that a total of 135 million people in the European Region have a disability. This number could increase in the coming years as the population ages (WHO Regional Office for Europe). All of these people will most likely face significant barriers when it comes to information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as poorly designed websites where graphics cannot be read by screen readers or information that can only be accessed with a mouse instead of also with a keyboard (Moberly, 2004, cited in Varney, 2013, pp. 1–2). This is fatal at a time when information and communication technologies are becoming increasingly important in our everyday lives. A so-called "digital divide" between people with access to information and those without (Dobransky & Hargittai, 2006, pp. 313), could emerge due to rapid technological progress. This potential development makes accessibility such an important issue so that people with disabilities also have full and equal access to information (Varney, 2013, pp. 261). Accessibility is not just about information. It's about enabling people with disabilities to live empowered lives and participate in the online environment where engagement and participation in contemporary politics, culture, and media take place (Varney, 2013, pp. 1–2; Ellis et al., 2015, pp. 9). In that regard, a change has been taking place since the last decades, and disability is more and more recognised as an important part of society, of the public and private sphere, and daily life. Some of these signs can also be found in the legal sphere: For example, the adoption of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Arnardóttir & Quinn, 2009, cited in Ellis et al., 2015, pp. 8) and various laws and regulations by governments (Francis & Silver, 2000, cited in Ellis et al., 2015, pp. 8). These include Directive (EU) 2016/2102, which requires member states to make public sector websites and mobile apps more accessible. Such new legislation must, of course, be implemented by practitioners. One of these are web designers, as those who create websites (AListApart, 1998, cited in Kennedy, 2012, pp. 10). However, little research has been done on professional web designers, particularly the professional ethos and their work (Kennedy, 2012, pp. 10). Therefore, this thesis is dedicated to accessibility laws, voluntary guidelines, and professional regulations and how they interact with web designers. So the research question asks: How do web accessibility laws and professional codes of ethics affect the web designer's profession and working life? To answer this question, the first part outlines the extent to which web design is a profession and how it has evolved. In the second part, the concept of accessibility, disability, and approaches to accessible design are discussed, then the legal regulations and professional ethics are considered, and finally accessible design in practice. In the end, a conclusion is drawn to summarise the findings and provide an outlook.
2. The development of web design and it’s status as profession
To better understand the possible effects of laws and professional ethics on web designers and their work it seems useful to take a step backward to the development of the profession and the question if web design is a profession.
The definition of a profession is very imprecise due to the changing meaning of the term and the changing nature of profession itself, as members of the professions have their own definitions of what they are and what they do (Burrage, 1996, pp. 75). Nevertheless, the various typical characteristics of a profession will be applied below to the profession of web design in order to outline its development. One described characteristic of a profession is that they are "organized bodies of experts who applied esoteric knowledge to particular cases" (Abbott, 1988, pp. 4). What seems to be the focus here is the abstract knowledge that distinguishes the profession from the craft, where the emphasis is more on technique. Building on this emphasis on expertise, a profession is characterised by a particular specialisation. For web designers, the special expertise is to create websites (AListApart, 1998, cited in Kennedy, 2012, pp. 10). This consists of a set of skills that include techniques such as front-end and back-end coding, but also abstract knowledge in the form of user experience and usability design, project management, visual design, information architecture, and digital content management and strategy (Kennedy, 2012, pp. 10). Specialisation was already observed ten years ago when web designers were increasingly seen as a distinct profession, different from amateurs who just do something professionally (Kennedy, 2010, pp. 187). There have also been internal specialisation, whereby a distinction is made between front-end and back-end web designers (Kennedy, 2012, pp. 10).
The second characteristic of the profession is control over the profession itself and the way abstract knowledge is mobilised within the profession, including training and regulation (Abbott, 1988, pp. 4). This includes the fact that professions tend to regulate themselves:
“they set their own standards, establish codes of conduct, set criteria for licensing, discipline members, and so on” (Abott, 1988, cited in Kennedy, 2010, pp. 191). Considering web designers, this criterion seems to be the case in terms of internal standards as well as regulations. Thus, since the first 10 years of its existence as a field of work, the profession has been "normalised": "From its birth as an anarchic free-for-all, web design has undergone a process of standardization, resulting in recognizable job titles, core skills and an emphasis on adhering to the guidelines established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and other international standards" (Kennedy, 2010, pp. 187). These and other standards were developed by their own experts and resulted in self-regulated web standards to guide web practitioners and good practice (Kennedy, 2011, pp. 93). However, the criterion regarding the education of the profession of web design is not met as this is not standardised or exclusive. Although web designers have a high level of expertise and specialisation, and in theory, this should mean that the work is inaccessible to those who do not have the necessary training and experience, specific formal training is not required. For example, several studies have found that the background of web designers varies widely in terms of degree and field of study: f.e. Computer Science or Information Systems, Media and Communications, Engineering, Administration and Arts (Inal et al., 2019, pp. 390–391; Patel et al., 2020, pp. 3).
A third characteristic of professions, as mentioned earlier, is that they change and can be seen as embedded in "an interacting system, an ecology" (Abbott, 1988, pp. 33). This means that their tasks change and adapt due to new situations such as new competitors or changing system structures. Indirectly, larger social forces can also affect individual professionals through the structure within the professions (Abbott, 1988, pp. 33). In terms of web design, a change can be described that can be attributed to the introduction of accessibility and affects various aspects. For example, the need for accessibility has created new professions such as the "Web Accessibility Specialist" (Rajšp et al., 2019, pp. 95) or the "UX Designer" (Inal et al., 2019, pp. 391). In general, a very large number of job positions in the field of digital accessibility were found (Rajšp et al., 2019, pp. 97; Antonelli et al., 2018, pp. 77). This can be explained, among other things, by the fact that the positions relate to different phases, such as the design, development, evaluation, or conformity testing phase (Rajšp et al., 2019, pp. 95–96). At the same time, existing professions have changed, such as front-end engineers or user interface developers, etc., adapting to the new accessibility standards and technologies.
In conclusion, web design is a profession, even if it does not cover all aspects of the definition. It becomes clear that web design is not a profession in the sense of the professions discussed by Abbott, such as medicine or law, which, unlike the web designer, require exclusive formal training (Kennedy, 2010, pp. 192). The profession of web design can be better captured by understanding them as part of the media, creative or cultural industries (Hesmondhalgh, 2002, pp. 12, cited in Deuze, 2007, pp. 60). This is possible because the main product websites can also be understood as aesthetic or symbolic (Kennedy, 2012, pp. 10). Such classification helps to categorise other characteristics of the web designer's profession. For example, as a media worker, a web designer must adapt to new demands to a significant degree and does not benefit from the relative stability of a lifelong working style (Deuze, 2007, pp. 10).
3. Disability and the concept of accessibility
The concept of accessibility is based on an understanding of disability as the social creation of unnecessary barriers, exclusion, and discrimination: "One might have a particular impairment, but be ‘disabled’ or ‘enabled’ by social arrangements – something reflected in the preferred UK terminology of ‘disabled person'" (Ellis & Goggin, 2015a, pp. 78). It is the social determinants, contexts, and dynamics that lead to disability, rather than a medical or health phenomenon. Furthermore, it is important to note that disability can take different forms and also last for different lengths of time. Every person can become more or less "disabled" and could identify with a disability in the course of his or her life. For example, due to age, war, poverty, gender-based violence, working conditions, accidents, and so on (Goggin, 2017, pp. 7). Disability as a social construct is also reflected in web technology. In this case, barriers, obstacles, and inaccessibility have created “built-in” systems rather than “enabling'' environments that seek to make technology accessible, usable, and responsive to user’s needs and preferences. Disability is consequently something caused by technology, as a result of poor design (Sharp, 2019, pp. 17). To counteract this, an important principle has been developed: “universal design” (Goggin, 2017, pp. 7). Universal design in this context means design that takes into account the widest possible range of people, including differences in gender, income, and education (Sharp, 2019, pp. 17). The idea of universal design is that when designing for disabled users, the end result is a technology that is useful (and accessible) to a wider range of users. An example of this are subtitles in online videos for the deaf or hard of hearing, but also for users in noisy environments or for people who have difficulty understanding the language (Ellis et al., 2015, pp. 11). The overarching goal of universal design is to communicate that accessibility should be an integral part of the design and development of ICT products and services. Central to this is a universalist vision of equality that focuses on promoting the full and equal participation of all citizens in society. Such participation can only be ensured if ICT products and services are designed to adapt to the full repertoire available in society (Varney, 2013, pp. 243). This aspiration is closely intertwined with the idea of the Internet as a globally accessible, universal medium. And in this vision, people with disabilities play a central role (Ellis et al., 2015, pp. 11).
The terms accessibility and usability are often mentioned together in training but also in job descriptions (Ferati & Vogel, 2020, pp. 4; Patel et al., 2020, pp. 3). In fact, accessibility and usability overlap, and thereby accessibility can be seen as a general term for both accessibility and usability (Stienstra & Troschuk, 2005, cited in Varney, 2013, pp. 3; Varney, 2013, pp. 3). The term accessibility refers more to the ability to make information easily accessible in any form, structure, or presentation, regardless of the specific skills of the user (Loiacono et al., 2006, pp. 1, cited in Varney, 2013, pp. 3). Usability, for its part, tends to describe the extent to which a product can be used by users to achieve specific goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a particular context of use (ISO 9241, 1998). It can be measured in relation to specific users and specific tasks (Nielsen, 1993, pp. 27).
That said, the approach of accessibility of universal design discussed here is also criticised, and therefore its shortcomings will be addressed here as well. One main argument against it is universalisation. By focusing on a universal solution without the need to adapt to specific conditions, some needs may not be taken into account. By this is meant that not everyone interacts with content in the same way, so different options and flexibility should be offered rather than a universal one-size-fits-all solution (Ellcessor, 2018, pp. 111). This seems to be especially true when the needs and expectations of people with disabilities are conflicting or people have a combination of disabilities (Ellis et al., 2015, pp. 11; Goggin, 2017, pp. 5). In addition, the process of universal design is criticised for taking generalised and formulaic steps rather than considering real feedback from users with specific accessibility needs. To address this, the principle of universal design could be complemented by empirical user testing, where web designers and users interact (Strantz, 2021, pp. 290–291). In this process, the web designer has the opportunity to understand access and adaptation, interventions, and engaged practice (Ellcessor, 2018, pp. 111).
4. Legal obligations about web accessibility: EU-directive
When it comes to internet accessibility, there are a variety of legal and political approaches that can be taken. One of these is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD for short) (Lazar, 2019, pp. 248). This emphasises that people "live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life" including the right to access information and communication (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2021). According to Varney (2013), this should lead to the goal of achieving equal access to information, which plays such a central role in the ICT sector (Varney, 2013, pp. 1–2).
There are many different legal regulations and laws at regional, national and international level (Lazar, 2019, pp. 260). As an example for this paper, I would like to briefly discuss the EU Directive. As mentioned in the introduction, the EU Digital Accessibility Directive (EU) 2016/2102 obliges Member States to make public sector websites and mobile applications more accessible. Thus, Article 2 states that Member States may maintain or introduce measures that go beyond the minimum accessibility requirements for websites and mobile apps set out in this Directive, in accordance with Union law (Publications Office of the European Union, 2018). The aim of this directive is to improve the accessibility of public sector websites and mobile apps and to harmonise the different standards across the EU in order to reduce barriers for developers of accessible products and services. This should enable EU citizens, especially those with a disability, to have better access to public services. Better accessibility in this context means that websites and mobile applications should be improved, especially for people with disabilities, so that they are perceptible, usable, understandable, and stable. However, the EU directive is limited to public sector websites. This distinction can also be found in many national laws (Lazar, 2019, pp. 251).
The impact of legal regulations on actual web accessibility is discussed in the literature. For example, some authors and studies indicate that legal regulations do not make a big difference towards accessibility. For example, a comparative study between the UK as a country with a policy adoption and Indonesia without such showed no significant difference, except that the level of violations of accessibility standards was lower in the UK (Arief et al., 2020, pp. 110–111). Another study result showed that empirical evidence of accessibility benefits can be more influential than forcing implementation through regulations (Yesilada et al., 2019, pp. 6). Another point of criticism is that legal regulations are not effective because they contain too many shortcomings (Palmer & Palmer, 2018, pp. 400). Moreover, companies would do just enough to avoid being sued (Seale et al., 2019, pp. 276). For example, one study showed that whether accessibility is considered depends on, among other things, whether it is a requirement or whether there is any law for it (Antonelli et al., 2018, pp. 78). However, to be truly accessible, it takes more than just meeting the minimum requirement. That said, others point out that legal requirements contribute to a more accessible web design. Several studies have concluded that government and corporate websites put more effort into being accessible because of regulations (Inal et al., 2019, pp. 388; Loiacono & Djamasbi, 2013, pp. 121). In particular, if the knowledge, awareness, and training of responsible persons are low (Ballesteros, 2015, pp. 585), the tendency to consider web design projects may be even lower if accessibility is not supported by government laws and policies (Lazar et al., 2004, pp. 281). In summary, legal regulations can have an impact but do not automatically lead to more awareness or practice of accessible design (Antonelli et al., 2018, pp. 72–73).