We believe that making accessibility a core part of product design, development, and testing is critical to success. Even with increased awareness of user and legal requirements, accessibility can bean afterthought for web and mobile application development.
User-centric design should mean all potential users, including those with visual, hearing, or other physical impairments that might impact their experience. It’s not only the product that needs accessibility at its core. It’s also the marketing and communication that must be accessible to reach all users.
Accessibrand is a local design and marketing agency that shares our dedication to accessible design. We sat down with their founder and creative director, Jolene MacDonald, to learn more about her path to entrepreneurship and why making accessibility part of your plan from the start is essential to creating a more equitable product.
MacDonald is a graduate of Conestoga College and began her career as a graphic designer at a pharmaceutical ad agency then with the City of Kitchener. After having her first child, she decided to start an agency in Kitchener, which she built and ran for 14 years. During that time, she and her husband welcomed two more children.
The birth of her youngest child started MacDonald on the path to learning more about accessibility. Her daughter was born with a rare form of dwarfism. The diagnosis opened her eyes to the lack of options and awareness around accessibility.
“All of a sudden, my life was about advocacy. Finding things that worked for her and fighting for her needs at school. It was then that a light bulb went off and I realized we’re not doing anything towards accessibility within design and marketing,” MacDonald said.
At the time, many of the assets MacDonald’s agency produced were printed and digital assets were basic websites. MacDonald said she started researching accessibility and spoke with her clients about accessibility awareness.
“One of my clients was with a not for profit that was disability focused. We started to talk about what kind of problems his members had with accessing digital information. A lot of that always comes back down to graphic designers and marketers when we’re creating the project from scratch. It pushed me even more to want to do that within our work,” MacDonald said.
It was a lightbulb moment for MacDonald. She found purpose and meaning in pursuing accessible design and left her agency to work for another one that offered more opportunities to pursue her interests. At the same time, MacDonald was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, an inherited condition that affects the body’s connective tissues.
The effects of the condition impacted MacDonald’s ability to work, but thankfully just before the pandemic hit, MacDonald and her healthcare provider found a medication that has allowed her to regain more functionality and increased her stamina to work. During this time, MacDonald reconnected with Conestoga College through their Venture Lab program and lead mentor Christian Synder.
“I had wonderful, amazing opportunities there. I was able to launch Accessibrand, build the team and go from there,” MacDonald said. “Accessibrand is based on myself and my team experiencing it firsthand with how people are affected by disability.”
Accessibrand’s mission goes beyond simply helping their clients build accessibility into their products from the start. They also create opportunities for people with disabilities to work and provide for themselves and their families.
“Traditional employers can’t always accommodate disabilities, so we have stepped up to create these opportunities,” MacDonald said.
Today, Accessibrand provides accessibility-focused technical services for document remediation—making PDFs and other digital documents accessible. They also offer user testing auditing to ensure that design and development teams catch any issues before moving to the production stages. MacDonald said even though the technology exists to check against Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act standards, there are gaps.
“Tools like Lighthouse will say your website is 94% compliant. But could you build a building to 94%? That 6% in the real world could impact someone like our project manager. He uses a scooter due to cerebral palsy. That 6% could make the building inaccessible due to a door being too narrow or a curb too high,” MacDonald said.
Minor issues in web or mobile apps that non-disabled people might not see can break an experience for someone with an impairment. MacDonald pointed to tasks from ordering groceries online to booking a COVID vaccine appointment as things we take for granted that a person with an impairment might not be able to do themselves.
The other part of Accessibrand’s services is to ensure that branding is accessible. They help clients with existing brands or clients building a new brand look at how different impairments can affect how a brand is interacted with, including colours and fonts.
“Many people think that you can just do your graphic design and then turn it into an accessible document and that makes it accessible. That’s actually not the case. There are lived experiences from our team that we use to help our clients truly understand accessibility,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald used an example of a website interaction that many homeowners go through at least once—getting a building permit. Accessibrand was working with a municipality on their website with a high accessibility score from an online service. One of Accesibrand’s auditors is vision impaired and took them through the process of trying to download a building permit application.
“He was able to easily get to the right page and found the application, but it was a non-editable PDF image. There’s no live text or fields where you can type anything in—it was meant to be printed and filled out by hand—which he can’t do because he’s blind,” MacDonald said. “This is what we walk clients through. Looking at all of these tasks from how someone with a disability actually interacts with it.”
Understanding how accessibility impacts users is something our team focuses on during our design sprints with clients. Speaking with MacDonald about her mission with Accessibrand truly reminds us of the importance of treating accessible design and user testing as must-haves instead of checkboxes.
“When we start talking about the why and the how and the outcome, all of a sudden the client realizes not just that there’s a potential huge market if they make sure that what they’re building works for everybody,” MacDonald said.
To learn more about Accessibrand, visit their website.