By Rachel Olivero
In the past several years, ensuring web content is accessible to people with disabilities has received a lot more attention than ever before. New regulations are coming out that align US government accessibility requirements with the guidelines established by the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative; courts are ruling that the Internet is a place of public accommodation and subject to accessibility laws; and most importantly, businesses and higher ed organizations are realizing that including people with disabilities is the right thing to do.
Yet what accessibility means to people with disabilities and the impact it can have once guidelines are followed can be a source of mystery for the general web public and for organizations that recognize the need to comply but are confused about exactly what to do.
I’d like to de-mystify this for you, and ensure you that accessibility is far less about specific disabilities and much more about general user experience best practices. But first, let’s get some terms straight.
When we talk about people with disabilities, there are a few general categories of users to which we are referring:
- Users who can’t read printed content, see pictures, or gain information from videos where it is presented only visually
- Users who can’t hear audio content
- Users who are unable to use a mouse or touchscreen
- Users with learning disabilities
I’m frequently asked how many people with disabilities will use a particular site, or if it is possible to track users with disabilities. The answer to both questions is that we don’t entirely know. There is data available from the US Census that tells us how many individuals self-disclose certain disabilities, but how many users don’t self-identify this way? We can extract some data from those who use programs meant to help them navigate their device more independently, but this also involves the user opting to share his or her data. In the end, our user information relies on self-reporting, which is not reliable.
Additionally, if we focus on tracking a specific user base, we’re missing the broader point. What we do for users with disabilities will yield beneficial impact beyond simply meeting accessibility guidelines. Here are some examples:
- Providing a transcript for a video not only allows a deaf person to read the dialog, but also gives any video viewer the chance to go back and search for a particular quote or portion of your video content they found compelling.
- Posting a PDF that includes text (rather than simply scanning a document and posting as an image) ensures that document is searchable by Google, and draws people to your content when they might otherwise have wandered elsewhere. (It should be noted, however, that HTML is forever greater than PDF. This I state in the interest of continuing my long-running battle with PDFs, a tale for another time.)
- Allowing users to toggle between a graph and table of their exercise data will not only make that graph accessible to a blind user, but it will let the average user pull their data into Excel and manipulate it, empowering them to better understand their own performance.
One of the biggest barriers to an accessible web for everyone is the prevailing belief that accessibility only affects a minority of our users. In fact, accessibility guidelines are good user experience guidelines: they’re best practices in coding, and they provide a better experience for everyone across the board. Don’t fear accessibility guidelines; embrace them. Use them to create a better end product for your institution.
About the Author
Rachel Olivero is the Director of Organizational Technology for the National Federation of the Blind. She spent six years working in the Web accessibility field before moving into an IT role. When not evangelizing accessibility, Rachel is probably sleeping.