Misix Library

Accessibility in the Digital Age

August 19, 2016


Over the past 25 years, the internet has become a large part of our culture and society, and significantly impacts the way we live, work and play. According to the World Bank, 87.4% of people in the United States were users of the internet in 2014. But while it may appear that any person with an internet connection can easily browse the web, this is not the case. Roughly 56.7 million people, or 19% of the American population, reported having some sort of disability in the 2010 census. People with disabilities may have difficulty using a standard computer setup and engaging in activities online. In this article, we’ll explore the importance of web accessibility and how web developers can make their websites more accessible to those with disabilities.


Browsing in Alternative Ways

Individuals with disabilities often use computers outfitted with specialized devices meant to reduce the impact of their limitations, also known as assistive technology products.


Wikimedia Commons

For those who have difficulties using their hands, alternative keyboards may be the answer. Many types of alternative keyboards exist, including options with larger text, fewer buttons or designed to be used with only one hand. Sip-and-puff systems, where an on-screen keyboard can be manipulated by inhaling and exhaling into a tube or straw, are also used. Some computers utilize prediction software, much like what is included on today’s smartphones, to predict upcoming text as users type, so sentences can be completed with fewer keystrokes.

Alternative computer mice assist users in much the same way. Joysticks – which can be manipulated with one’s chin, feet or hands – can help individuals with disabilities control the cursor on their screen. People with limited hand motion, as well as those simply looking for a more ergonomic option, can use trackball computer mice, which are controlled by a ball on top of the computer mouse as opposed to moving the mouse as a whole.

There are also options to help people with visual impairments receive outputs from their computers. Screen reading software, such as Freedom Scientific’s JAWS, reads text from a user’s screen aloud via speakers or headphones. For those who are unable to see the text on their screen, connected braille displays render text in the form of braille letters, which can be felt and interpreted by the user.

VIDEO: Jaws Demo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGvxueahJzI

This is by no means a complete list. There are many options available for individuals with disabilities. These devices are evolving over time as other technologies, such as brain-wave sensing, become advanced enough to create consumer products.


Coming Up to Standard

With a wide range of needs, developers often wonder how they can create websites that are able to serve these diverse individuals. Thankfully, an industry-accepted standard for accessible web development already exists. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was developed by the standards organization for web development, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The WCAG assists developers with appropriate practices for accessible design. These include adding alternative text for images, designing for appropriate color contrast and ensuring web page behavior is predictable.

There are three levels of compliance: A, AA and AAA. Level A is minimum compliance, while level AAA is the highest. Many developers aim for compliance on the AA or AAA levels. The standards can be found here.

Creating accessible websites is not just an industry practice. In many areas, it is also the law. Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act requires that any website developed in the country or hosted on an Australian server be accessible to those with disabilities and recommends developers create websites that are WCAG 2.0 level AA compliant. Those with disabilities who cannot access an Australian website can file a claim. Norway has similar regulations, also requiring WCAG 2.0 compliance on the AA level.

In other countries, only government websites must maintain compliance. In the United States, all federal websites, including those developed by federal contractors, must comply with the Access Board’s Section 508 standards, a list of criteria that all federal websites must meet to be considered accessible. The Board is currently in the process of updating them to include all WCAG 2.0 standards. Compliance with these standards is also required for government websites in France, Canada and much of the European Union.

These standards are affecting other areas as well, with many large corporations like Southwest Airlines, Target, Toys R Us, Ugg, eHarmony and other brands facing lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for failure to provide accessible websites. These lawsuits cost companies millions of dollars in legal expenses, which could have been invested into accessible website development instead.


What Can Developers Do?

Developers and designers looking to create more accessible websites should start by reading the WCAG standards and begin integrating them into new and existing projects. These include creative professionals drafting accessible designs and developers including necessary HTML attributes and metadata in web pages.

Processes should also be developed internally at organizations to test and audit accessibility standards compliance. Automated tools like tenon.io can streamline this process. Testing web page use with a screen reader, such as the free ChromeVox extension for the Google Chrome browser, can also help check for accessibility issues.

Finally, those who work as part of the website development process should follow advancements in assistive technologies and web accessibility standards, and keep those standards in mind during the development process. By doing so, organizations take accessibility into account and remain aware of issues.

As technological and design capabilities continue to expand, online accessibility will become more of a priority. Smart brands will take a proactive approach in ensuring their users remain engaged and avoiding legal issues down the line. Thanks to the accepted WCAG standards, designers and developers now have the tools they need to remain compliant.

Is your organization’s online presence fully accessible? If you don’t know the answer to that question, we should talk. Misix helps brands create relevant and compelling online experiences that are accessible to any user. Head to our Contact page to start the conversation.