Despite major technology advances over the years, many organizations still struggle with digital accessibility. A 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 53 million — or one in five — adults in the U.S. have a disability. That’s a large chunk of the population that must be considered when designing government websites and online features.
While there are many tools for disabled individuals to utilize computers and mobile devices (e.g., screen readers for the blind), there are still major challenges that stem from how content is provided. So what issues do individuals with disabilities face when accessing websites?
According to Sachin Pavithran, chair of the U.S. Access Board and director of the Utah Assistive Technology Program, much of it comes down to how information is presented. “The bigger problems are that a lot of these websites have a lot of information,” he said. “Even though you can access it, the way the information is laid out could create a barrier because it’s hard to navigate due to the structure. That’s one of the biggest barriers right now: how information is laid out.”
Pavithran, who is blind, runs into this problem a lot. “For example, if I go on a Web page and there are pages of information but there’s no way to distinguish one section from the next, I can’t prioritize,” he explained. “Whereas someone who doesn’t have accessibility concerns can skim through to jump through each section, I have to go from top to bottom.”
While the prevalence of Americans living with disabilities is undeniable, there are few accessibility guidelines or models for organizations to follow to ensure they are up to par. The most well known accessibility standard is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which outlines basic compliance standards for federal agencies to follow regarding electronic and information technology. In addition, the World Wide Web Consortium has released the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, which serves as a key reference for many organizations that are focused on improving or reviewing their accessibility compliance.
Despite the resources available, many organizations aren’t quite hitting the mark when it comes to providing optimal digital accessibility. That’s likely because accessibility is often viewed as an afterthought instead of a key piece of the development from the get-go.
“The biggest thing is how you exercise higher priorities,” said Pavithran. “A lot of times, accessibility is thought of after the fact. For example, when we talk about most websites in the government sector, security is a huge factor, but accessibility is nowhere in that conversation. You need to ensure accessibility is a part of the design phase — understanding what accessibility at large means needs to be more engraved in teams that work in these kinds of environments.”
That’s where organizations like WebAIM, a nonprofit based at Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities, come in. A majority of the services that WebAIM provides are accessibility evaluations and trainings to assist private and public organizations, including the CIA and IRS.
Jared Smith, associate director of WebAIM, said the organization’s clients are eager to improve, they just don’t necessarily know where to start. “Most of the time when people get to the point of engaging with us, they have an understanding that there are some problems — many of them don’t understand the extent,” he explained. “Our approach is to educate and empower our clients. We don’t want to build a reliance on our services; we want them to become the experts. That’s why we don’t fix people’s websites for them — we provide training on how to fix them so they can do it on their own.”
Reshaping the way accessibility is thought about is important when it comes to staying relevant to all users. “The training gives a broad understanding of accessibility and of disability,” Smith said. “We focus on the end-user experience. What does disability mean? It helps them develop empathy for that experience for people. This is not just a technical thing; it really is about a positive and efficient user experience. Accessibility does that.”
Framing accessibility in an all-inclusive lens is something that major tech players like IBM are investing in. Phill Jenkins, an accessibility business development executive with IBM, has worked extensively on accessibility over the years and was appointed by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Access Board to help establish accessibility standards. He pointed out that the best accessibility is not about compliance, it’s about innovation.
“We’re trying to get away from the idea of testing accessibility. That’s really the wrong way to approach it. You can’t expect something to be changed after it’s launched,” Jenkins said. “Think of a building: When it’s built, they build in the wheelchair ramps and make sure drinking fountains are at the right height. All of those specifications in the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] are designed so they will be compliant. The better you design upfront by having these design thinking guidelines, the less likely you will find a lot of problems.”
To embed the idea of accessibility in designers’ minds up front, IBM is investing in education and training to simulate situations that users with disabilities may encounter. “How does a blind person communicate? Those are things we can teach the design staff to understand,” said Jenkins. “There are many kinds of designers — we don’t teach contrast to the interaction designer because they’re dealing with interaction. But the visual designers are all about colors and changes, so we teach them all about contrast. It’s role-specific training.”
That training also reinforces the idea that accessibility should be considered for all users to enhance ease of use and convenience. For example, take any voice-activated device on the market today and it’s likely to be used by all types of people.
While high-tech companies may be making strides in accessibility, many experts say the public sector could do more. “I think often that much of that innovation is generally happening outside of government in the industry. But where government can have an impact is in procurement requirements and funding,” Smith said. “We’ve seen that with Section 508 where most private entities want to interact with the federal governments, so the government could require that as a part of federal funding.”
But Jenkins pointed out that regardless of the industry, the innovation possibilities for accessibility start with being mindful of the needs of all users. “There has to be a change of awareness from disabilities. It has to be broader than that because it’s not sustainable,” he said. “We have to be aware of how it has to be a part of everyone. That familiarity is good, we have to build on that and we have to create something for everyone, including folks with disabilities.”