Global Accessibility Awareness Day ProQR website - learnings from a genetic eye disease company

This year we celebrate the tenth anniversary of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), and we look back on the development of our own accessible website a year ago.

Labtop keyboard with blue accessibility key with icons for vision loss, physical disability (wheelchair), hearing loss and screen reader

Every third Thursday of May it is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. A day on which we talk, think and learn about digital access and inclusion, and the one billion people with disabilities worldwide.

Firstly, what is accessibility and why is it important to us?

Simply put, accessibility is the ability to access and this is essential to create an inclusive world for people with disabilities or special needs. However, accessibility research and practice benefits everyone and can even be considered a human right. Examples can be as common as accessible buildings and toilets closed captions in videos and text that is easy to understand.

As a patient focused company specialized in developing treatments for genetic eye conditions, we know about the barriers people who are blind or have low vision encounter. We see the importance that companies like us do the utmost to provide accessible information about the treatments we’re developing. ProQR feels it is our responsibility to give an inclusive experience in all aspects of our communication, being aware of the daily challenges people face due to the (often progressive) nature of their condition and living in a world mostly designed for the able-bodied.

In 2020 we launched a redesign of our website (proqr.com). In this development project, accessibility for people with visual disability was the major requirement. We’d like to share some of our learnings with you since today is all about creating awareness around digital accessibility.

Various impairments

When we set out to improve our website, we needed to understand accessibility needs. Let’s first look at what areas of disabilities/impairment there are:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Cognitive, learning, and neurological
  • Physical
  • Speech

Every website has their own purpose and audiences. For us, overall accessibility was important, but foremost we wanted to be inclusive to people from the low vision, blind and deaf community, since we develop a treatment for various conditions that lead to vision loss as well as Usher syndrome which causes progressive vision and hearing loss.

Set in a cafe, two people are ordering from the menu. A third person, the waitress is wearing a transparent mask to allow lip reading. People are aslo making handsigns.

Lip reading can be essential for people with hearing loss, but what if you need to wear a mask? This waitress is wearing a transparent mask to allow that.

No person is the same. People may experience various kinds and degrees of impairment that have different needs. Some may have disabilities from birth or may have developed impairments later in life which affects the tools they use. Some people might not think of their experience as a disability, while others identify with it.

Besides this, we learned that good accessibility means enabling people to use the senses they have instead of taking away the need to use them all together. Presuming all 'blind' people use screen readers is a misconception.

With this in mind let’s go through the principles that make a website accessible.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

These principles are described in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) which is a great starting point for anyone interested in this topic. The principles are:

  • Perceivable - Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
  • Operable - User interface components and navigation must be operable.
  • Understandable - Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
  • Robust - Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

If you want to learn more, we can recommend reading the Accessibility fundamentals of the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative where this is taken from.

How we went about it?

The first thing we did was orient ourselves. We screened lots of accessible websites, mainly of patient advocacy organizations like the Foundation Fighting Blindness, gathering many ideas. Our internal team also received a training by Foundation Accessibility for UX designers (Stichting Accessibility). We made a list of requirements and went searching for a web developer specialized in accessible websites, which we found in Dutch based LimoenGroen and their visual design partner PuurPXL. All of the designs and technologies they build into their websites are assessed on accessibility and their expertise is wonderful. Together we made personas (fictional website users) with disabilities based on the patients that might benefit from our treatments in the future. One of the many things we found out is that we should keep the text column width relatively small, and the content aligned to the left. This way, people that have a very narrow visual field (as looking through a straw) don’t miss out on information.

Example of seeing the ProQR website with peripheral field loss, theres only an image in the center, the rest is black and unsharp

Peripheral visual field loss that accurs with retinitis pigmentosa, is like looking through a straw. The ability to zoom (zoom out in this case) is essential.

We also needed a panel of people review the designs in the process. For this we involved Molly Watt as an accessibility consultant (read this inspiring interview with Molly) and other members of ProQR’s Global Patient and Caregiver Steering Committee.

After go-live we keep developing, as some things are best tested in the real digital world. New wishes coming from our own insights and from the feedback of our stakeholders we take to another development sprint. That way we keep improving.

Parallel to the website we’ve started to apply these learnings in our social media posts, video’s, documents and events, because (digital) accessibility doesn’t just stop there. Using accessibility checkers is now part of our habits. Having had this web development experience with accessibility central, makes us so much more aware of the other areas where we can still make progress. And we are dedicated to take accessibility to a next level.

Have something to say?

We would like to hear your feedback on this blog and our website. You can email us at patientinfo@proqr.com. Let’s learn from each other!