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Why should your organization care about accessibility of your data visualizations?

Did you know that people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority? Designing your visualizations to serve users who need accessibility makes your data understandable and useful for everyone.

Tuija Marin / December 13, 2023

It is estimated that there are 1.3 billion people with substantial disability in the world.

That means one in six people has a significant disability and needs accessibility. If we consider temporary disabilities and situational limitations, the number is even higher. One example of temporary disability is a broken arm. A loud environment or bright sunlight are examples of situational limitations.

But accessibility is not only about limitations. It is essential for some, but useful for all. And beyond addressing needs accessibility can be a driving force for innovation . For example, the creation of the first commercial email service connected to the internet was led by Vinton Cerf, known as Father of the Internet, who is hearing-impaired.

What is digital accessibility?

Accessibility refers to designing and developing digital products and services that can be used by all individuals, including those with disabilities. It ensures that everyone, regardless of their abilities, can access, navigate, and interact effectively with technology.

The four principles of accessibility that products or services are:

  • Perceivable. Content must be clear regardless of user’s abilities.
  • Operable. Users must be able to operate with various tools (keyboard, mouse, voice control).
  • Understandable. Content and functionality must be easy to understand for the user.
  • Robust. Content and applications must work with different tools and assistive technologies even when technologies evolve.

Commonly, disabilities are categorized into the following groups. However, there are various ways for categorization and the list here is not exhaustive. As mentioned earlier, disabilities might also be temporary.

Infographic depicting different types of disabilities and their characteristics. The first row of the infographic describes visual impairments such as blindness, low vision and color blindness. The second row of infographic describes hearing impairments such as deafness and hard of hearing. The third row of infographic describes motor disabilities such as impairments affecting mobility and dexterity. The fourth row of infographic describes cognitive disabilities such as cognitive impairments, learning disabilities, neurodivergent conditions. The fifth row of the infographic describes speech impairments such as difficulty speaking or communicating verbally. The sixth row of infographic describes and neurological disabilities such as epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis.
Different types of disabilities

How to make your data visualizations accessible?

There are not any official guidelines for accessible charts, diagrams and infographics. Therefore, analytics professionals need to rely on basic principles of accessibility.

So, what kind of data visualization is perceivable? At minimum, you must provide alternative texts to make your visualizations accessible to people using screen readers and make your visualizations adaptable, meaning that information can be presented in different ways without losing its meaning.

Then, how to make your data visualizations operable? Desing your visualizations to be navigable with keyboard, so users that cannot use mouse will be able to interact with them. Allow users enough time to read and interact with your visualizations, so that, for example, those with motor or cognitive disabilities can consume them.

You can make data visualizations understandable by using language that everyone can understand regardless of their cognitive abilities. Avoid using complex or ambiguous language.

Robust data visualizations are compatible with different assistive technologies. Test the visualizations across different platforms, browsers, and devices to ensure consistent accessibility.

Picture has two stacked vertical bar charts. The chart on the left displays yellow, red, and green bars without white spaces or labels. The chart on the right has contrasting colors that are also suitable for color-blind users. The chart includes white spaces between bars and data labels inside the bars showing numeric values.
Example of non-accessible and more accessible data visualization

3 easy tips to make your data visualizations more accessible:

  1. Don’t use only colors to explain the data. Use also shapes, patterns, labels, legends and white space.
  2. Keep it simple. Visualize only the data that is important for the user. Use clear and concise titles, headings, and descriptions that explain the purpose and meaning of the visualization.
  3. Offer multiple ways to consume your visualizations. Use alternative text version and offer possibility to view data in table form.


Why accessibility of your data visualization matters?

The European accessibility act is the European Union’s directive , which was created to promote common rules on accessibility. It covers products and services that are most important for persons with disabilities and have the most varying accessibility requirements.

Does this concern you? It might, since the act expands accessibility requirements across the digital world. It applies among other things to:

  • Computers and operating systems
  • ATMs, ticketing and check-in machines
  • Smart phones
  • Services related to passenger transport (i.e., websites, mobile applications, electronic tickets and their purchasing, real-time travel information)
  • E-books and software for their use (i.e., electronic book readers)
  • E-Commerce

The European Accessibility Act was adopted by the European Union in April 2019, and Member States have until June 28, 2025, to transpose it into national law.

If the legislation does not apply to you, should you still think about the accessibility of your data visualizations? Absolutely. First, because it is the right thing to do. And second, even though at first creating accessible data visualizations might take more time, it can lead to multiple benefits.

Accessibility can affect consumers’ purchasing decisions. Naturally, a person who needs accessibility can leave your product on the shelf or pass your service if they cannot buy them or get necessary information for the purchasing decision. Google found out in their research that 82% of shoppers want to buy from brands whose values match their own.

Clearly communicated accessibility efforts can widen your potential customer base to people who do not need accessibility but value equality and diversity.

The company’s website might include data visualizations such as infographics and charts about revenue growth, customer satisfaction ratings, social responsibility efforts, employer benefits and work-life balance initiatives. By making these accessible, companies can enhance their employer image. If a company communicates their accessibility efforts clearly, they can attract more diverse talent pool and establish reputation as an inclusive and socially responsible employer.

I came across a good example of how accessibility can drive innovation while doing interviews for my thesis. I asked one of the interviewees how I could design more accessible data visualization and they said that to make the data visualizations fun. I had never thought that data visualizations should be fun, but it really made sense. We all probably have some information which would be easier to consume with a fun and engaging presentation.

In addition to the benefits above, accessibility can provide cost savings in the long run. When products and services are created accessible from the beginning, it enables individuals to participate independently and reduces the need for special services for disabled persons.

Now that you know why accessibility of your data visualizations matters, stay tuned for our next blogpost where we’ll delve deeper into the best practices and tools for accessible data visualization.

Tuija Marin
Data Engineer, Tietoevry Create

Tuija is Alice in Data Wonderland, who curiously explores various aspects of data. Understanding different persons and situations is important to Tuija. This sparked her interest in accessibility and human-centric data. Tuija is specialized in accessible data visualization.

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