Accessibility Lessons from DrupalCon Seattle

In the Drupal community, the annual DrupalCon show is the biggest event of the year. Held in a different city each year, the event brings Drupal users together for a week of sessions and networking.

With so many people and agencies committed to Drupal in attendance, DrupalCon is the perfect opportunity to provide training and guidance. This year’s show, DrupalCon Seattle, dedicated its first two days to community summits and full-day training sessions. One of these summits tackled one of the most prevalent issues of the year for Drupal: Accessibility. Through a combination of keynotes, panels and breakout sessions, the summit’s organizers gave attendees actionable insights and new perspectives on front-end accessibility.

Drupal and Accessibility

The day kicked off with a keynote from OpenConcept’s Mike Gifford, who spoke about his agency’s work with the Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB). For the organization’s 100-year anniversary, the CNIB sought a rebrand and redesign with an emphasis on making their site’s content more accessible. As OpenConcept learned, creating an accessible platform is easier said than done. To illustrate how difficult the process can be, Gifford wryly offered this Donald Rumsfeld quote:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.

In the context of web development, accessibility is often an “unknown unknown.” Without extensive testing, programmers won’t know that any given element won’t limit access for certain users. As such, one of the major lessons that Gifford shared was the importance of manual testing.

“Automated accessibility testing will only get you 25 percent of the way there,” Gifford said. “Manual testing is essential, and this mostly comes down to getting rid of your mouse and tabbing through a site."

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As Gifford and speakers from subsequent panels noted, the best method for testing a site’s accessibility is to actually use it. While a lot of problems can be found by, as Gifford said, unplugging your mouse and using the “tab” key to navigate, this approach can still miss blind spots that able-bodied users wouldn’t consider. Alternatively, hiring disabled users to perform QA testing on a given site is often the best solution. 

This ethos is especially true when building mobile sites. Another keynote speaker, Gian Wild of AccessibilityOz, covered the mobile accessibility testing process in detail. Manual testing on real devices can root out common traps, like if a site’s buttons are too small to be navigated with a finger or if links aren’t underlined. For more common errors, Wild’s slide deck can be found here.

Manual Testing is Key

As important as manual testing is, though, automated accessibility tools are a vital element of the accessible design arsenal. Though pervasive and subtle errors still require hands-on QA testing, automated solutions will identify many more thousands of minor issues in a fraction of the time. As such, using these tools in coordination with manual testing will ensure that your site is as accessible as can be.

During the final breakout session of the summit, attendees shared which tools they think work best for rooting out accessibility issues, many of which conveniently come in the form of browser extensions. Some commonly mentioned tools included:

We’ve previously profiled several accessibility tools, and you see which one is best for you here.

As challenging as accessibility testing can be, the reward of expanding your audience is well worth it. Fortunately, the Drupal platform helps ensure out-of-the-box accessibility features. During his keynote, Gifford pointed out that Drupal design patterns have already been tested, known bugs are listed transparently, and the development community actually cares about the issue. In fact, OpenConcept’s work for CNIB produced several fixes and modules that can now be utilized by any Drupal user. These contributions and further info about the CNIB redesign can be found on Gifford’s slide deck here

With a senior-level team of designer and developers, Duo can apply these lessons to sites across industries. Our commitment to accessibility means that every site we build will be open to all users. To learn more about our process and values, reach out to our team today!

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