Laura Kalbag – Accessibility for Everyone

  • Isaline MĂŒlhauser

We are sabotaging our future selves! Let’s be responsible. Report of the meet-up by IxDA Lausanne, filled with call-to-actions.

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How does it feel to navigate the web with an impairment?

Imagine you can’t see and you listen to a screen reader, what does it say? What is wrong with a screen reader? It reads titles filed with SEO keywords (generalities and nothing specific), then it goes ‘link-webcontent-banner-link-link-webcontent-image
’ You get the idea.
Imagine you can’t listen and you see a video without subtitle. What can you understand?
Imagine you have fine motion impairment, how can you click on a tiny link ‘here’?
Imagine it is you first time on the web, you don’t know the conventions and you don't know how to fill a contact formular (what does the asterisk mean?)

Laura started her talk with a demonstration that provided examples of difficulty that are commonly faced.

There are 4 ways in which a page can be difficult:

  • The page is hard to operate,
  • The page is hard to understand,
  • The page is not readable,
  • The page is not listenable.

It is not about other people

Are you able bodied? Do you ever feel concerned about such issues? If the the answer is yes and then no, despite the fact that you might lack empathy, you are short-sighted.
There is about 100% of chance that, in the future, you will lose some of your abilities. We grow older, how easy is it for your grandparents to navigate the web? How easy is it for kids in comparison? Don’t fool yourself, you will be the grandparent.
Even temporarily, with a broken arm, a broken leg, an illness or accident, we will be, at some point, impaired. Actually, you could refer to yourself as a TAB: ‘temporarily able bodied’.
While we enjoy our condition of TAB, it is the world that we create that is impairing.
Imagine a world created for people who are half our size, how easy would it be to go around a house created with a standard of 1m10 height? It is uncomfortable and you might even harm yourself, it would be like walking around a Middle Age house and hurting your head because you are too tall.

What are accessibility and inclusive design?

Accessibility is a way to go around. For example: you have stairs to the main entrance, but you provide a way around your house with a lift for anyone with wheel (from mothers with child in a buggy to someone living with a wheelchair).
How does it feel to always have to take the back door because you go around with wheels?

Inclusive design goes beyond the alternative, it is designing for everyone from the beginning. Obviously disability is diverse, and there is little chances you can accommodate everybody. However, you can make slight changes that will provide a wider range of possibilities. Inclusive design is designing so taht everyone can take the front door.

You can :

  • Make it easy to see,
  • Easy to hear,
  • Easy to operate,
  • Easy to understand.

“We need to design for purpose. Accessibility is not binary: it is our eternal goal. Iteration is our power : digital is not printed. ” says Laura.

Practical actions for copywriting

I really liked that Laura provided us with a wide range of practical advices to create inclusive design. The list below is not exhaustive, it is just what caught my ear.

  • Give your content a clear hierarchy and clear structure,
  • Don’t be an attention thief,
  • Use plain and simple language and explain the content,
  • Give your content order,
  • Use headings to segment and label: headings are not just a visual feature, in plain text, use hierarchy such as

  • Prefer descriptive linking, such as Contact us rather than 'Click here to contact us',
  • Use ponctuation, like com and full stop → it gives the screen reader a break,
  • Add transcript (they are useful also to people who want to just scan the text),
  • Use captions and subtitles for video (captions include all of the audio information, example: a bit of audio). Producing captions and subtitles is easy with jubler. Another way of getting quick subtitles is to reuse and edite the auto-caption.

Alternative content

For people who can’t access your primary content (because of a low connection or sight disability), provide a text alternative (alternative attribute). It gives the browser a way to fall back
Write descriptive meaningful alternative text. Rather than ‘Picture of my dog’ be creative and use ‘Picture of the head of my dog resting on my knee, looking very sad while I work with my laptop on my lap.’

Try out and iterate

Social media is a great option to work on your alternative text. For example, you can add descriptions of pictures on Twitter.

Can accessible websites be beautiful?

Laura advises us to consider aesthetics as design, not as decoration because ugly is not accessible anyway. "We are not making art, beauty is a thoughtfully-designed interface." says Laura.

Practical actions: Aesthetic principles

  • Use buttons for buttons and links for links: something happen or take someone somewhere: interfaces should not be confusing, one needs to understand what is the purpose, what they can with it, when to do it,
  • Conventions: don’t be different for the sake of being different, but don’t do it because everybody does it,
  • Ensure the layout order reflects the content keyboard,
  • Width: long lines are difficult to follow,
  • Typography: chose according to readability, suitability and not because it looks cool: heinemann vs. georgia (beautiful serif but confusing if you are new to reading),
  • Small is not tidy, it is just small,
  • Don’t prevent font resizing,
  • Consider the font weights,
  • Consider the line heights,
  • Colour: it should not be the sole mean to convey information (example: use a doted line),
  • Colour contrast,
  • Don’t decide what is good for other human beings, rather ask them.

"Our industry isn’t so diverse: we don’t all have the same needs but we mostly build product for ourselves. We need to understand and care." advocates Laura.


It is beneficial to work within a diverse team. Empathy is easier because you embrace differences. When needs are different within a team, it makes it more difficult to completely avoid difference. When you understand problems, you are better at solving problems.
A diverse team also prevents us from ‘othering’: let’s not speak about the ‘other’ people.
Laura proposes to go a step further: what if we speak about a person rather than a user? Then it is not user experience design, just experience design.

We can also diversify our source material.
“Don’t shut people out. It impacts people’s lives. We build the new everyday thing, we have to take responsibility of what we do.” advocates Laura.

Everyday actions you can take

If you are not a designer or a copywriter, or if you feel that you are not in a position to decide, you can still make a difference:

  • Be the advisor: provide info and trainings,
  • Be the advocate: if you are not marginalised you have more power,
  • Be the questioner,
  • Be the gatekeeper,
  • Be difficult : embrace the awkwardness of being annoying,
  • Be unprofessional: don’t let people tell you to be quiet or to be nice,
  • Be the supporter: if you can’t risk things, support the people who speak up.

About Laura Kalbag and IxDA Lausanne

Laura Kalbag is a designer from the UK, and author of Accessibility For Everyone from A Book Apart.

Laura works on everything from design and development, through to learning how to run a sustainable social enterprise, whilst trying to make privacy, and broader ethics in technology, accessible to a wide audience. On an average day, you can find Laura making design decisions, writing CSS, nudging icon pixels, or distilling a privacy policy into something humans understand. (Text by IxDA Lausanne).

IxDA Lausanne is your local chapter of the Interaction Design Association - IxDA.
The team organises events for Interaction Design enthusiasts.
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