The advent of Green Digital Accessibility

Written by Tom Greenwood - December 13, 2022

This month I had the honour of giving a keynote talk at the first International ‘Green Digital Accessibility’ Conference in Barcelona. I was initially unsure how I would attend a conference in Barcelona without flying. After all, we have had a no-fly policy at Wholegrain for 7 years and it wouldn’t make sense to break it now, especially to go to a ‘green’ conference.

Lucky for me, European train networks are pretty amazing. Vineeta and I had a very pleasant couple of days, first traveling from our home in the New Forest to London, then by Eurostar to Paris where we enjoyed an evening at a cute little organic café and discovered an entirely vegan boulangerie called Land & Monkeys. The next day we hopped on the TGV high speed train and rocketed down the entire length of France at 300kph, watching the landscapes change as we traveled south. The highlight was passing through the salt water lagoons between Montpellier and Perpignan and seeing hundreds of wild flamingos. You don’t get that on EasyJet! We arrived in Barcelona relaxed and ready for the conference the following day. And what a day that would be!

Tom and Vineeta take a selfie in front of the Gare de Lyon train station with some Christmas trees in the background
A chilly December morning outside the Gare de Lyon as we head for our train to Barcelona

This is not a niche

At first glance, you might think that Green Digital Accessibility sounds like a niche, or perhaps even a niche of a niche. After all, accessibility is sadly still not a core part of the culture in the digital sector and environmental sustainability is even less so. Therefore, green accessibility may appear to be an even smaller topic but that would be the wrong way to look at it. The Green Digital Accessibility conference challenges this notion.

As I often say, environmental sustainability must not be a niche. We need to ensure that our society is compatible with the natural systems on which we depend, and in the long term sustainability is not optional. Equally, accessibility is about creating a world that works for everyone. To achieve that, everyone must be committed to making it happen, not just a few. We must think about accessibility in every aspect of society and champion it as something that we all care about improving.

Sustainability and accessibility are therefore not niches. They are key pillars of a healthy society and they both need to be mainstream. If that is to happen, then we need to ensure that our work in sustainability is compatible and complementary to our work on accessibility. These two fields need to work together, not against each other. If we hope to properly integrate these concepts into our culture then we must bring them together.

The conference explored the challenges and opportunities of bringing digital sustainability and digital accessibility together more holistically. It highlighted how we can spread knowledge between these two disciplines, identify common opportunities and discuss potential solutions to the challenges. I believe that this is essential, and I’m delighted that the team behind this landmark event, led by Pilar Orero, have had the vision to bring these two important topics out of their silos and encourage new ways of thinking collaboratively.

Digital design for the planet… and people

My own talk covered some of the things that our team here at Wholegrain Digital have learned about web sustainability, and how we have found that using the environment as a lens through which to view design and development can also lead to better accessibility. I aimed to highlight synergies between these two worlds that are waiting for us to embrace them.

Here are a few examples:

  • More efficient web services are better for the environment but also easier to load on slow connections and slow devices. They can also save users money on data and extend battery life on mobile devices.
  • Simpler, cleaner user interfaces can be easier to read, easier to navigate and use less energy by removing unnecessary content, media and functionality
  • Honouring a user’s own accessibility preferences set on their device, such as reduced motion and dark mode, can also save energy on their device.
  • Alternatives to video for informative content, such as SVG animations and real text descriptions can be more accessible and more energy efficient.
  • Resilient technology makes it easier for people to access important digital services and information in a crisis.

I also aimed to highlight that the foundation of accessibility is the basic ability to load content on the device that you have with the internet connection you have access to. If this is not possible, all other accessibility efforts are worthless. This is why creating resilient, high performance, low data web services that can run on slow devices is an essential foundation of accessibility. They also happen to be central aspects of sustainable web design.

A jam packed day

The conference had an ambitious schedule, with talks and panels running from 9am through to about 7pm, followed by the conference dinner. This was an exciting sign that despite this being the first conference of its kind, there was an abundance of content to fit in and a lot of enthusiasm from the attendees to explore this topic. I also found it to be one of the friendliest and most relaxed conferences that I have ever attended.

Some of my personal learnings from the day were:

  • The challenges of creating accessible video content in a world where user generated video is now the number one source of content production. Machine learning can help a lot but it isn’t yet perfect and it comes at a significant energy cost to train the models and then deliver to users.
  • Mariona González-Sordé presented a small study comparing the carbon footprint of websites with a dedicated Easy Language mode. In the majority of cases, the Easy Language mode was significantly less polluting because unnecessary elements had been cut out. It’s another example of how simple, intuitive design can be more accessible and better for the environment.
  • Accessibility is particularly important in crisis communication to ensure that important messages reach the full population. This includes the methods and format of content delivery as well as the clarity of language and imagery. In many cases, there won’t be a one size fits all solution and variations may be required to adapt to the needs of specific user groups.
  • There are an increasing number of environmental computer games that aim to educate and inspire people about environmental issues and the actions they can take. Accessibility features are not standard in these games, limiting their potential reach. Furthermore, there seems to be a relationship between the independence of the game creators and the quality of the environmental messaging. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
  • The potential risks of tech optimism and how we are over emphasise the potential benefits of new technology and underestimate the risks. We are biased to see technology as progressive and beneficial because day to day we generally interact with and technology that directly benefits our lives. The downsides of technology are often one step removed from our personal experience, or result in the technology not reaching mass adoption.
  • Efforts had been taken to ensure that the conference itself was an example of best practices in both accessibility and environmental sustainability, with the W3C Accessible Event Checklist and the EMAS guidelines on sustainable events providing a solid starting point. Interesting features included the hybrid format with automatic subtitling, vegan and vegetarian food, and the use of donated cups for refreshments.
Tom Greenwood and Sarah Mcdonagh sit at a lectern in front of a projector screen while Tom presents about digital sustainability
Tom highlighting examples of high and low carbon websites during his keynote, alongside session chair Sarah Mcdonagh

We have so much more to learn

The above highlights are just a small sample from this first event. The packed schedule highlighted just how much there is to explore and learn when we bring the two fields of accessibility and sustainability together with a common aim of creating a better world for all.

It also highlighted how for the most part, these two fields are complementary to each other, but that there are cases where accessibility needs may incur some additional environmental impact. It seems clear to me that in these cases, this is a compromise that we should accept in order to create inclusive experiences for everyone. As Pilar pointed out during the conference, the small increase in cost and energy to implement features such as automatic subtitling are tiny in comparison to the amount of money and energy we consume on luxuries. We need to shift our priorities.

I believe that Green Digital Accessibility is an approach that we urgently need to adopt. A focus on sustainability or accessibility can help us see things from new perspectives. Likewise, a more holistic approach that unites accessibility with environmental protection can help us see opportunities that we might otherwise miss.

I’m grateful to Pilar and the team at UAB and GreenSCENT for being the first to have this clear and much needed vision. They went to great lengths to organise this pioneering event and it was well worth it. I hope this years event is the first of many and that Green Digital Accessibility soon becomes a mainstream concept.