This post highlights a community expert, as a part of Learn Accessibility!
Alexandra White: How would you introduce yourself? You do so much accessibility work.
Albert Kim: I'm a digital accessibility subject matter expert (SME), a UX design consultant, and a public speaker and coach, raising mental health awareness in the tech community.
I founded Accessibility NextGen, a community for people interested in learning more about accessibility. I'm a Disability:IN NextGen Leader. And currently, I'm a W3C invited expert for the Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Task Force and Mental Health Sub-Group. Lately, I've been researching how to include people with OCD, ADHD, dyslexia, and PTSD into the product development process.
Offline, I'm a DEI community leader, blogger, huge foodie, photographer, and I love traveling—I travel a lot. I'm the first generation in my family to live abroad, the first generation to get any formal education. I was raised by a single mother in a low-income household. I'm a military veteran.
I identify myself as someone who can empathize with a lot of different struggles and life stories.
Alexandra: Did you always think you'd be someone who would have a career or work in accessibility?
Albert: I always wanted my profession to be not just a job, but one with social impact. I've switched careers several times. In college, I tried different majors. I've founded startups, I was a business development manager, I worked in telecommunications in the military. I was an interpreter. I've had many different jobs.
It's important to mention all of these different experiences, as all of the dots began to connect in their own way. I eventually got into digital accessibility because of my personal experience as someone with a disability, but also with a love for digital products. I really, really love a good product. Useful, functional products.
We often use the phrase "assistive technology," but all technologies are assistive. I'm passionate about digital products that help improve my life, that make my life easier. I want to connect consumers with the producers of digital products, and digital accessibility is fundamental to that connection.
Alexandra: Can you expand more on how you create opportunities for direct communication between users and product creators?
Albert: Often, when developers build digital products, they don't make full use of their own product. They aren't aware of how useful their product is for users, especially those with disabilities. That means that they're not thinking about those use cases in the design process. Because of this, they often miss an opportunity to discover disabled users who could become loyal customers.
Designers and developers may or may not find out later that what they built is useful to disabled users.
Connecting product owners and developers to their users with disabilities early in the product development process can lead to full realization of a product's potential. This is in addition to products designed with accessibility as an intentional feature.
As a metaphor, I love sharing good food with my loved ones. The joy is doubled when I can share it. Just like that, I want to share really good products with my friends, but I cannot always share them if they're not accessible. A blog post alone, without a screen reader or other interventions, is not accessible to my blind friend. If digital product makers hear these stories from users, then hopefully they'll make accessible design choices so the users can fully utilize their products.
Build for "invisible" disabilities #
Alexandra: I appreciate that you mentioned your blind friend specifically, because often the first thing that comes to mind when developers and designers do think about disability are the "obvious" ones: visible and often permanent disabilities. But there are so many people impacted by accessible design, such as those with temporary and invisible disabilities, like psychological disabilities.
You're an invited expert to the W3C group, the Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Task Force and Mental Health subgroup. What is COGA?
Albert: The COGA task force is a joint commitment of the Accessible Platform Architecture (APA) Working Group and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Working Group. COGA assists these other groups in creating guidance documents, as well as updates to existing W3C accessibility guidelines. For example, we further developed proposed success criteria for WCAG 2.1.
Often, companies and developers look at WCAG guidelines as their standard for web accessibility. But, there's supplemental guidance in the form of issue papers. COGA has written some of these papers on different use cases to help describe cognitive disabilities and scenarios where persons with atypical profiles use technology successfully and unsuccessfully. We help these working groups think about cognitive disabilities and learning disabilities.
Alexandra: Have you been with COGA from the start?
Albert: I joined a few years after the group was developed; but after I joined, I strongly advocated for a mental health subgroup. COGA's focus was primarily on cognitive and learning disabilities, but I wanted to start a conversation about mental health.
I happened to know someone in that community who reached out on Twitter. I got in through that connections, and I'm very passionate about bringing invisible disabilities into web accessibility spaces.
Participate in COGA and other W3C initiatives #
Alexandra: Can anyone participate in such a group, and do people attend regularly?
Albert: It's an open group! Anyone can join, as participants of either the APA Working Group or the WCAG Working Group. If your company sponsors the W3C, you can join, or as an independent invited expert. I'm an independent invited expert.
Alexandra: For most of my career, I didn't know that. I didn't realize how much power an individual could have in influencing and even creating standards that make up the web.
Albert: It's definitely a big time commitment and a lot of responsibilities. For some, that may not be feasible.
The easiest way to participate is to join the COGA Accessibility Community Group. The community groups are more flexible and don't have as much responsibility or commitments. This group supplies user needs and feedback to the COGA Task Force.
Alexandra: Here's where I confess my own stakes in this work, in your subgroup. I suffer from anxiety and depression, and have for most of my life. There are times I'm overwhelmed by certain sites and apps, even those which are meant to help us be "productive," as some tasks have long checklist steps before you can move to the next task. Tools which are helpful on my best days can be overwhelming the next day.
In your Accessibility Rules interview, you mentioned the ways in which endless scroll can be traumatic, and how that affects you as a person with OCD and PTSD. Is there guidance out there or sites that are doing a good job of giving people a way to opt-out of an experience that may be triggering.
Albert: There is a COGA issue paper, that has supplemental guidance. As far as websites or resources acting as a good example… that might be hard to find! Addressing mental health in web development is still very new. But I do have a lot of advice and specific best practices that I can recommend as a user with disabilities and as an accessibility SME.
First thing, follow the WCAG guidelines, though most of them were written prior to the mental health subgroup existing, so much of that guidance is helpful beyond those with physical disabilities. It's helpful for users with invisible disabilities and mental health disabilities. Following this, that has to be the beginning. If websites were following these guidelines and did a really good job, even if they didn't think about mental health at all, we probably wouldn't experience many of these problems.
One of the most important design choices that would be helpful is clear, semantic structure. Clear headings can be very helpful for users with OCD, ADHD, or dyslexia. Even for me, and my anxiety as well. All of these illnesses share some pain points, they're interconnected.
Stop creating bad user experiences #
Alexandra: Okay, what about the opposite? What are people building that is against WCAG recommendations that is causing problems for those with mental health issues?
Albert: So many things:
- Complex navigation and page layouts that are difficult to navigate and use.
- Multi-stage forms that have a lot of imposed requirements, rather than communicating with users why something is important or needed.
- Long passages of complex text with a lot of jargon or metaphors that are difficult to understand, which require additional context.
- Flickering content or background images that are moving or blinking. Notifications that you can't turn off easily.
- Timeouts on complex activities, especially without options to save, such as when you're filling out a form and you're given a warning or a timeout after 30 seconds.
- Search on websites that doesn't work well. This may mean there's a lack of filters, and that leads to an endless set of results.
- Unexpected behavior, like when you click a button and the page jumps back to the top so you have to figure out where you were and scroll back down.
- Hidden actions, like when a cookie popup requires multiple steps in really small print to decline the cookies. Or deliberately making subscriptions that are really hard to cancel.
These aren't just accessibility issues, these are usability issues.
Alexandra: Good product design is accessible design.
Albert: There are so many examples. Make a good product and users will come back. These are just some examples.
Include content warnings #
Alexandra: Something often politicized, at least in the United States, is the idea of content warnings (colloquially known as "trigger warnings").
These warnings may be related to a design choice—flashing images may cause seizures. Those are less controversial, and fairly commonplace. However, content warnings for certain subjects is also critical for many.
Albert: If your content has something sensitive, such as violence or mentions of sexual assault, having warnings can be very helpful for users with PTSD, depression, and anxiety, especially as it may stem from personal experience of traumatic events. Allow for customization and personalization that is obvious, so people can choose what information they are ready to read, see, or hear.
The core meaning of the web is to relay information. Rather than imposing our information, we should be communicating it. We should think about how others will perceive what we have to share. I may write something one way, but it may be interpreted by someone else in a different way. Clear structure helps to avoid some of these miscommunications.
Summaries and tables of content are also very helpful in allowing a user to prepare themselves for what they'll be learning.
Alexandra: I'm personally grateful for these content trigger warnings, so I can decide if I'm in a place where I feel comfortable reading or seeing content which may lead to an emotional reaction. For those who are worried that there may be pushback on including trigger warnings in their content, do you have any advice?
Albert: We must think of it as a public health issue, not a political issue. Trigger warnings are not about censorship, at all. It's about giving users freedom to choose. When we don't provide the option, then we don't give users freedom to protect themselves from something that may cause harm to their mental health.
We shouldn't arbitrarily impose or force information on users. The most common reaction for people with PTSD who encounter trigger content is to leave and never come back. You lose those people. It's a health issue.
Albert: There's some similarity between a trigger warning and a parental control. We don't have any political concerns about letting parents choose what is acceptable to be seen by their children. It's very conventionally understood. This is exactly the same. People deserve to have control for themselves.
Alexandra: Seems reasonable to me!
Do one more thing: communicate clearly #
Alexandra: If you asked developers to change one thing about the way they design and build websites to make them more accessible, what would you ask for?
Albert: Don't forget that the fundamental purpose of a website is to clearly communicate information to the user. To do this, you must think about what information you want to share with your users, and more importantly, how to frame that information so the content and your intentions are understood.
You can succeed by building each page with semantic HTML, use a clear structure and layout of content. Clear structure and layouts help you communicate better with your users, and are more scalable, usable, and accessible. Ensure labels are consistent and instructions are provided correctly. This helps users more easily find the information they seek and better understand the relationships between different parts of the content.
This advice touches upon three WCAG success criteria:
Missing these success criteria is among the most common accessibility issues found on websites. This affects people who use assistive technologies (such as screen readers), but also neurodivergent people who may have cognitive and/or learning disabilities or mental health conditions.