Accessibility and sustainable web design

Accessibility in sustainable web design can be understood in two ways; one being the geographical reach and the other being the ability to navigate and use the website no matter what type of internet user you are.

Both of these aspects are important, and in this article I will explain why I believe accessibility in general is an important part of sustainable web design and also why it made its way into my book Sustainable Web Design In 20 Lessons.

Sustainable Web Design

The word “sustainability” covers lots of things, and I have seen many debates about what it exactly means. One person interprets the word as entirely environmental and therefore expects all principles to be about the environment, while others see exactly how big and broad the term is once you dig into it.

If you look at the core principles from the Sustainable Web Manifesto, you will see that number 3 (Open) and number 6 (Resilient) pretty much cover what I am about to explain.

The third principle says: “The products and services we provide will be accessible, allow for the open exchange of information, and allow users to control their data.” This says that information should be accessible to everyone on the internet including those that require help from software and/or machines to navigate. Or that is at least how I interpret “The products and services we provide will be accessible”.

The sixth principle says: “The products and services we provide will function in the times and places where people need them most.” This principle is telling us that our information should be available and also be accessible to everyone, including people who struggle with a slow internet connection.

Now that we have laid the foundation I can explain in detail why accessibility in my opinion is an important part of sustainable web design, and why it made its way into Sustainable Web Design In 20 Lessons.

A greater geographical reach

Over the last 10 years, the size of web pages has grown 594%. We went from having websites that mostly contained text and very little styling, to having websites full of animations and heavy code and images. The weight of websites have changed a lot over the years, and if we look even further back we will see a much greater increase in size.

As a child I remember we had a 56K modem. Every time we had to use the internet we had to block our phone line. If you are old enough to remember this type of connection you are most likely familiar with the scratchy, bippy noise it made every time the modem downloaded information or uploaded it.

A 56K modem was very slow, and unless you wanted to sit and wait in front of the computer all day, you had to plan out which websites you wanted to visit. Today we surf for the sake of it, and the results show up in under 1 second, but back when I was a child loading an image could take minutes.

Back in those days, the internet didn’t have a great reach either, which meant only some people had access to it. Websites were also very light, and developers were thinking about optimizing the websites as much as possible.

If we turn the time forward to today, I can tell you that there are still people in this world who are struggling with internet connections almost as slow as the one I have described. But the difference is that back then a website mostly contained text, and today they contain images, videos, CSS, fonts, and much much more.

Downloading a website today on such a slow connection can take 20 minutes, making access to information difficult. While the cities are working on faster internet connections, we are at the same time expanding the internet’s reach, which means even people in very remote locations can access valuable information.

Access to information is great, especially if you live in a remote location where information can mean the difference between life and death. But if websites grow in size faster than the internet speed and reach, then access becomes harder.

By optimizing websites using sustainable web design practices, we can make access to information easier for these people, and in my opinion that is a more sustainable solution. Faster internet speeds are like a ripple effect; The faster the connection, the heavier the websites. But when the rest of the world isn’t following they get left behind.

Sustainable web design is tackling this problem by focusing on reducing the size of a website. Reducing the size has two major benefits which are; It reduces the data necessary to show the website, and it reduces the environmental impact a website has. My vision of sustainability for the internet is to make it accessible to everyone and at the same time drastically reduce pollution.

A broader user group

According to Pew Research Center, roughly 62% of adults with a disability say they own a desktop or laptop at home, and according to WHO, there are approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide with a disability. 1.5 billion people account for roughly 16% of the world’s population. That is a lot of people struggling to access information on the internet.

I believe that accessibility is an important part of sustainable web design. While we are trying to create a version of the internet that has a lower environmental impact, we should also focus on expanding the reach both geographically and technology-wise. In my opinion, something is first truly sustainable once we take the environment, geography, and people into consideration. We must find a balance where we create the future of the internet without leaving people behind because of their location or abilities, and at the same time think of the environment.

I chose to include accessibility as a part of my book Sustainable Web Design In 20 Lessons because I believe it is an important part of sustainable web design and the future of our world wide web.

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Michael Andersen
Michael Andersen

Michael Andersen is the author of Sustainable Web Design In 20 Lessons and the co-founder of Sustainable WWW (World-wide-web), an organization teaching sustainable practices. With a passion for web design and the environment, Michael solves puzzles to make the internet more sustainable.

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