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The Reasons Behind Online Accessibility

  • Synopsis: Published: 2013-02-04 (Rev. 2016-10-29) - Examines website accessibility and discusses technical specifications explaining how to build interfaces that are accessible to people with disability. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Thomas C Weiss at Disabled World.

Definition: Web Accessibility

Web Accessibility - The inclusive practice of making websites usable by people of all abilities and disabilities. The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) defines web accessibility as: "Content is accessible when it may be used by someone with a disability." The U.S. Federal Government addresses accessibility at the workplace in both the American's With Disabilities Act and the Federal Rehabilitation Act. Separate from the work towards accessibility that the government has produced is the work of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C is a group dedicated to the evolution of a more usable World Wide Web.

Main Document

"The courts in their interpretations of accessibility laws have at times created more barriers to accessibility enforcement, many times because of a limited understanding of accessibility and the Internet."

In the world of online technology an accessible interface is one that will work for people with disabilities, a number of whom use assistive software, web sites, and operating systems.

More common types of assistive technologies include screen readers that provide computer-synthesized speech output of items that appear on the screen, alternative keyboards and pointing devices, as well as speech recognition, which allows a person to provide input hands-free. Guidelines from organizations provide technical specifications explaining how to build interfaces that are accessible. The majority of Web accessibility regulations around the world today, to include those in America, are based on the, 'Web Content Accessibility Guidelines,' a set of standards from the World Wide Web Consortium.

Even though accessibility guidelines and assistive devices exist, if a particular web site is not designed in a way that makes it flexible enough to work with various assistive devices there is nothing that a person can do that will lead to the successful use of the site by a variety of people with disabilities. It is not a matter of a person with a disability upgrading to a newer version of software, or buying a newer hardware device. If a Web site is not designed for accessibility there is no action the person can take that will make their interactions with the site successful.

The solutions, from a technical perspective, are easy and do not involve any type of advanced coding.

The solutions commonly involve adding markup that is appropriate such as:

  • Links
  • Forms
  • Table columns
  • Descriptive text to describe graphics

Solutions like these are the responsibility of Web site developers, designers, and webmasters. It is not a matter of needing more technical expertise, simply an awareness of the need to provide labels that are appropriate. Upon initial review a Web site that is accessible will not appear any different from one that is not. A Web page that is accessible is one that is well coded. In fact - the same coding techniques that make a Web page accessible also help with the page's search engine optimization because the entire markup helps search engines to find and appropriately classify the page.

If a Web site is designed with accessibility in mind from the start, there are no additional costs involved. If a Web site has already been designed, the amount of money and time needed to retrofit it for accessibility depends upon the size and technical nature of the site. Adding more text labels takes more time, depending on the number of static Web pages that need to be edited.

If a Web site uses a content management system, many times the page templates may be edited quickly so the page layout itself is accessible. If this is the case, it is only up to the content developers to ensure they have labeled pictures and provided closed-captioning, or a transcript on multimedia. If a Web site is designed inherently using accessible technology such as HTML, the costs and time to make the site accessible should most likely be limited. If a site is designed using an inherently inaccessible technology, such as one built entirely in Flash - more cost and time will be needed to make it accessible.

While every person with a disability might be affected by inaccessible Web sites, people who are blind or have low vision are many times among those most affected. Computer interfaces remain primarily visual ones and when the non-visual equivalents are not properly coded, people with low-vision or who are blind might have little or no access to content. People with hearing impairments may access the majority of the content with the exception of the audio when developers do not provide transcripts or captioning. People who experience motor impairments might be unable to use standard mice or keyboards and may have difficulties with interacting with Web sites that provide content that usable only with pointing devices.

A number of design features that assist users who are blind may also help people with motor impairments because making a Web site user-friendly for people who are blind means ensuring that all content may be accessed using a keyboard, which is also something that is needed by people who experience motor impairments. Little research on Web accessibility for people with cognitive impairments exists unfortunately, with a small body of literature indicating various types of effects based upon different cognitive impairments. Due to a lack of knowledge, U.S. regulations have not included guidelines that meaningfully address Web accessibility and people who experience cognitive impairments.

Government Web Sites and Obstacles

Unfortunately, people with disabilities may still find themselves unable to access much of the information on even federal Web sites that is available to people who do not experience forms of disabilities. In one example October of 2010 found some of the content at ready.gov, a site that provides emergency readiness information, inaccessible to people who are blind. Blind users were unable to access information concerning hurricane preparedness and in fact - were not even aware the information was available. Web sites that offer information concerning government jobs and loans were also inaccessible. A number of federal Web sites that people with disabilities suggest that people with disabilities should contact them if they experience issues accessing content, yet the contact forms on the sites themselves are inaccessible.

Accessibility issues such as these exist, despite the fact that the federal government has pursued a legal program to promote equal online access through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the E-government Act, as well as other laws. The laws create the most comprehensive legislative approach to accessibility in the entire world. United States law concentrates on the civil rights aspects of disability and emphasize the ways society may better allow people with disabilities to function. States in America; following the lead of the federal government, have also passed accessibility laws.

Sadly, compliance with and enforcement of the laws in America have not been effective.

Recent study has discovered that greater than 90% of federal home pages were not in compliance with Section 508. Although the Justice Department has the responsibility for collecting data from federal agencies in relation to compliance every other year - it has failed to collect data since the year 2003. The section508.gov Web site, one managed by the General Services Administration, was re-designed in 2010, although the new version is not in compliance with section 508. Apparently, the feedback form itself has fields within it that are not properly labeled leaving the form with fields a blind user cannot determine what they are supposed to represent.

While every federal agency has a person who is in charge of compliance with section 508, this has had little impact on actual compliance. Federal Web sites are not required to have an accessibility policy statement and even if they do - the statements many times provide little more information other than, 'we are compliant with Section 508.' Some even offer misleading information. A number of States have regulations that are similar to section 508 and address State government Web sites, although compliance and enforcement are many times non-existent.

Along with the fact that no government agency is in charge of accessibility, a number of additional barriers to compliance and enforcement with accessibility laws exist. People with disabilities have the responsibility to monitor accessibility and to bring complaints and claims against companies and agencies that violate accessibility laws. The approach places the burden on people with disabilities to enforce their own rights in a way no other minority population in America is asked to do. Even when people with disabilities are able to successfully make such claims they usually do not succeed.

Under all of the disability laws, private and public entities may claim that the requested accommodation is not practically or financially, 'reasonable,' and is therefore and, 'undue burden,' under the law. What this means is the entity does not need to provide the accommodation because it represents too much effort in terms of cost or time. Still another problem is the fact that the laws focus on the technologies and not the users of the technologies or the reasons why people use the technologies. Without a clear focus on the communication and information needs of people with disabilities, the laws will permanently be way behind current technologies.

The legalities surrounding private Web sites are even less clear unfortunately.

The courts in their interpretations of accessibility laws have at times created more barriers to accessibility enforcement, many times because of a limited understanding of accessibility and the Internet. The problem is clearly demonstrated by a federal district court opinion related to the ADA - National Federation of the Blind v. Target, 2006 which found that the Target Web site, because it was closely integrated with the company's physical stores, could be viewed as being legally required to be accessible because of this nexus. The same opinion; however, explicitly limited the holding to companies with an online presence that is closely integrated with a physical presence.

Because of this decision, case law states that Target must have an accessible Web site while Priceline.com, Amazon.com, and Overstock.com might not need to be concerned about accessibility. Case law also implies that a company may have both online and physical presences, with the online presence being inaccessible, as long as the Web site is not tightly integrated with the physical presence. Even though technology companies have begun to include accessibility features more consistently in operating systems and devices such as the Apple iPad and Microsoft Windows - those are designed to be used by millions of people and have the benefit of large numbers of usability and accessibility experts at both of those companies. For example; text-to-speech and screen magnification come pre-installed and there is no need to purchase additional assistive technology. Web sites tend to be developed by millions of different organizations and companies, many times without accessibility experts and often without even basic knowledge of accessibility issues.



Related:

  1. Computer Screen Magnifiers - Reviews of screen magnifiers software that interfaces with a computers graphical output to present enlarged monitor screen content - (Published 2009-02-17).
  2. People with Disabilities and Technology Challenges - For people with disabilities the majority of Internet related technologies are created inaccessible and cut out some or even all users with disabilities - (Published 2013-02-02).
  3. Microsoft Announces Free Accessibility Tools and Training for Developers - Microsoft free online accessibility training courses tools and resources to help developers create products services and websites accessible to people with disabilities - (Published 2011-03-17).

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