in Systems Architecture

It’s an awkward conversation. You almost can’t get through it without feeling like a jerk. You’re building out a new site, and whether you’re a federal agency or a for-profit corporation, the question’s going to come up: what are we doing about accessibility? And right there, the conversation gets really uncomfortable.  Because no one wants to say it, but the real question is: “how much do we really have to do to make our web site accessible? How much is enough?”

Balancing your site budget and launch date with your interest in “doing the right thing” for your site’s visitors with disabilities never feels easy. To this, add the confounding factor of a rapidly changing “accessibility” landscape — more needs to be accommodated, more assistive technology to accommodate those needs, and more rules and regulations about the internet as a “place of public accommodation.” It’s confusing. It’s sensitive. And its hard to navigate. Let’s dispense with the formalities. You don’t want to ask these questions, so I will, and we’ll get some help from experts in answering them.

1. Are any people with disabilities actually visiting my site? This is the question often followed by “do deaf people listen to podcasts?” and “do blind people watch web videos?” And the answer is a resounding yes. The 54 million people with disabilities in the United States make up the largest minority population in the country, and according to WebAim’s conservative estimates, nearly 8.5% of the population has a disability that impacts accessibility on the web. Web sites and mobile applications actually serve as some of the world’s most useful “assistive technologies” for people with disabilities. Text messaging was actually popularized largely by the deaf population, and screen readers on the web have helped greatly decrease the cost of translating documents into braille. From VOIP to FaceTime to Google’s instant captioning application, the web is in fact bringing more people with disabilities to the web, to your organization, and to your site.

2. What is the bare minimum required of me to create an “accessible” web site? 

Of course, this depends on who you are. “Section 508″ is an amendment to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973. According to accessibility expert Jim Thatcher’s tutorial, “Section 508 requires that electronic and information technology that is developed by or purchased by the Federal Agencies be accessible by people with disabilities.” So most corporations aren’t held to 508 regulations, but many comply, in part to capture the incredibly loyal market of people with disabilities. Hulu is a great example. After demonstrating their commitment to caption their videos online, Hulu became the #1 online video site for those who are deaf and hard of hearing. Their next step: they made all those captions searchable. So, if you’re a federal agency or a government entity, Section 508 applies to you, and if you’re a corporation hoping to capture some of the loyalty of those 54 million potential customers, accessibility is something important to consider in your plans.

If you’re interested in knowing exactly what 508 requires of you, check out the technical standards. But if you want a baseline guide, here are 8 questions to ask yourself for all pages  of your site:

  1. Do all of the images have alt text?
    • If the image is active (link, button, area) the text alternative is the function of the image;
    • if the image is not active but conveys information, the text alternative conveys the same information;
    • if the image is redundant or conveys no information use alt=”” for the text alternative.
    • If the image is text then the alt-text should (usually) be the same as the text in the image.
  2. Have you provided skip navigation?
    • enable a user to move to the main content of a Web page without having to hear or tab through unnecessary information first.
  3. Have you added page titles and section headings?
  4. Have you made your image maps accessible?
    • Make sure all areas have meaningful alt tags
  5. Do you have an accessible form?
    • The prompting text should be easily associated to the form control (physical closeness, labels, titles)
    • JavaScript trigger events should not require a mouse
  6. Do you have accessible tables?
    • Use a summary and/or caption to describe the table structure
    • Mark up table header cells (unless for layout)
  7. Without JavaScript is the site missing information or functionality?
  8. Have you made your multimedia, audio, and video accessible?

3. What if I make these accommodations and then the rules change? What do I need to look out for?

You’re right – the accessibility laws are changing and becoming more focused on web and mobile accessibility every year.  President Obama promised in his speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act that accessibility for the web was coming. And just yesterday, the Equal Access to 21st Century Communications Act was passed, breaking new ground for accessibility and the web. Among the law’s provisions are requirements for captioning on the web for any television program that’s captioned on TV; a requirement for mobile device browsers to exhibit the same level of accessibility as web browsers; and rules for making VOIP more accessible and useful with relay services for those with hearing disabilities. The general rule of thumb is this: if it’s an accessibility requirement offline, it’s going to likely become an accessibility requirement online, and then on mobile. Whatever the law requires us to do to ensure that people with disabilities can experience TV, radio, and multimedia; participate in telephone communication; or access information and fill out forms will likely apply online as these functions move online for the rest of the population.

4. Accessibility isn’t free. How can I make this happen less expensively without compromising quality?

Well, of course, as an organization dedicated to open source solutions, we’re going to suggest you consider open source options. And if you’re looking at 508 compliance for your  government web site, I’m going to suggest you keep an eye on OpenPublic, an open source Drupal solution created specifically for government web sites, where 508 compliance will come standard. We built it with the best practices for 508 compliance and accessibility in mind, so that it can be deployed without worry of “is this enough?”

And while we wish it were different, accessibility can’t be fully “automated” or wrapped up in a product. As site designs change, functionality needs change, and content is added, a commitment to continuing and maintaining accessibility and 508 compliance is important to consider in your organization’s plans and budgets.

5. How do I know if I’m doing it right?

There is a wealth of information out there to sift through, and as we’ve noted, the laws change regularly. Luckily, there are some folks looking out for what’s new in 508 compliance and making it reasonably easy to analyze your site. A few helpful links include:

The big takeaway here is not about “doing what’s right.” As our entertainment options, daily tasks, and information more regularly includes the internet, accessibility “compliance” is less about compliance, and more about opportunity. Our organizations and corporations spend billions accommodating and marketing their products and services to Hispanic populations, who, numbering 48 million, make up the second largest minority population in our country. Why not consider the same kind of opportunity in this group of technology first-movers (iPhone 4’s FaceTime drove millions of individuals with hearing loss toward the device) and loyal fans? Let go of the awkward “people with disabilities” conversation – there’s more than a population of those “in need” out there — there’s a real market.

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