Research Report Do No Harm Guide: Centering Accessibility in Data Visualization
Jonathan Schwabish, Susan J. Popkin, Alice Feng
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At the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act 32 years ago, President George H. W. Bush remarked that the law would enable “every man, woman, and child with a disability [to] now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.” That promise remains unrealized. Disabled people still fight for full inclusion and equality when it comes to employment, health care, access to transportation, and more. And in today’s digitized era, people with disabilities do not have full access to many documents, reports, newspapers, data, and data visualizations. This report is a guide to help close those gaps and work toward a more inclusive and equitable world for the more than 61 million people with disabilities in the United States today.

This third volume in the Do No Harm Guide series from the Urban Institute seeks to provide in-depth lessons on how to create visualization products that are more accessible to disabled people. As with the other volumes in this series, centering data work around empathy remains one of the central themes for creating more equitable and inclusive contentBy thinking carefully about the needs of all people and communities—especially those who have been historically underrepresented and marginalized—data visualizers and communicators can create better and more accessible content.

As in the second volume, Do No Harm Guide: Additional Perspectives on Data Equity, experts in the field of creating accessible content were invited to contribute to this guide. This practical, actionable report consists of nine separate essays written by experts, many of whom are disabled themselves.

Key Themes

The authors explore why and how to create accessible data content, discussing issues such as how organizations can incorporate accessibility throughout their process, how to write effective alternative (alt) text, and how to implement accessible content onto the web. Overall, five clear themes emerge from this report:

  • Design with accessibility in mind from the beginning. Data practitioners will create better products by incorporating accessibility at the start rather than adding accessibility as a remediation step at the end. Taking an accessibility perspective from the outset requires teams and individuals to critically consider what the expected user experience will be; who will use the tool or data; and how visual elements like text, colors, and online navigation will be consumed by the broadest audience possible.
  • Accessibility should not be a specialty. Anyone working with data or creating digital content should understand and strive to produce accessible products. Although some of the aspects of creating accessible online content clearly require technical experience, the work should not be left to a single person or some subset of the team.
  • There is no established definition for what makes a data visualization accessible. Although the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines lay out requirements for making accessible websites, no standards have yet been agreed upon for how to make data visualizations accessible. That said, the authors of these essays did surface best practices and techniques that have made their own work more accessible.
  • People with disabilities should be involved. Many of our authors urge data practitioners to involve people with disabilities in the design and development of data visualizations and data-driven products to ensure their needs are met. Charts, graphs, and other content should also be tested by users with disabilities to identify any usability or accessibility issues.
  • There is not a single right answer for writing alt text. There is no single right answer or right strategy for writing effective alt text. The guiding principle is to write alt text that gives disabled readers as close to the same experience as nondisabled readers as possible.

As with other reports in this series, the lessons described here are not so much fixed rules; rather, they are a starting point for the journey to create better and more inclusive work. Accessible content not only makes it possible to hear from more voices, it also enables more people to access critical information.

Research Areas Race and equity Disability equity policy
Tags Disabilities and employment
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
Research Methods Research technology Research methods and data analytics
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