Embracing Accessible Technology
- May 16, 2018
Did you know that the third Thursday of May has gained a special prominence across the world in technology space in recent years? It is the day when we celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). "The purpose of GAAD is to get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital (web, software, mobile, etc.) access/inclusion and people with different disabilities,” reads the GAAD website. Countries, companies, disability institutions and individuals with and without disability celebrate this day in a variety of ways. These include local events that showcase how people with disabilities can use the web and digital products through assistive technologies, and how assist companies, developers and other relevant stakeholders take into consideration the needs of certain disabilities when creating technology products.
Why bother about accessibility for persons with disability? Because these individuals are often not to be seen. In fact, you may be surprised to learn the size of this segment of the population. As estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations and International Labor Organization, our planet has about one billion people who have one or more form of disability. Or, to put is simply, one person in seven of the world’s population, are living with some sort of disability.
Studies indicate that among this 1 billion, nearly 800 million of people are of working age. These numbers will only increase as people live longer, and chronic conditions, such as diabetes, increase. The WHO estimates by 2050 there would be more than 2 billion people with disabilities.
It is not hard to imagine that those with disabilities suffer disproportionate difficulties across all aspects of life. In addition to the stigma and stereotypes they encounter, people with disabilities typically have had less access to education, struggle to be recruited and promoted, and complain of lack of access to most social, civic and recreational facilities and services. Technology offers the potential to ease these barriers, but has a caveat: for technology to work for persons with disability, it must be developed according to recommended standards, which makes it accessible and usable to most of these people. Thus the need of integrated accessibility.
Most developers pay little-to-no attention to incorporating accessibility features in software, websites and mobile apps. Currently, these products and services offer limited adaptability in functionality, and weak policy frameworks to support the provision of an accessible digital environment. There are multiple ways in which a technology can be inaccessible to a person with disabilities. These barriers vary on the individual and the disability. Let me touch upon a few scenarios:
Difficulty seeing: Individuals with blindness, color-blindness and deaf-blindness especially struggle with many applications, websites and digital interfaces. Images without text alternatives, missing non-visual cues, and websites that do not offer custom color combinations can be huge barriers to those with visual disabilities. A good starting point for web and mobile developers could be the use of alt tags. These simple HTML tags have been in existence for a very long time, however are often overlooked or under-used. Alt tags allow screen reading software such as NVDA, JAWS to read text out loud and interpret the content of the image. Alt tags can be used on images and other content that isn’t text. These are an opportunity to describe an image for someone who can’t see it.
Difficulty hearing: People who are deaf or hard of hearing are seldom able to fully interact with technologies, websites and mobile applications, especially ones that extensively use sound as a medium to communicate. Some examples include media players without captions, lack of sign language to supplement information and interactions that rely on use of voice. A good practice for websites, apps and other solutions that include video is to offer subtitles or transcripts. Providing text will ensure those having difficulty hearing can participate equally with others. So, next time you see a movie in English offering subtitles in English, don’t frown or ridicule the effort, those subtitles go a long way to include a certain section of society.
Difficulty arising from various cognitive and neurological conditions: Cognitive and neurological disabilities effect the nervous system or the brain, impacting how people see, hear, move, speak and interpret information. Disabilities in this category include autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities and certain mental illnesses. Complex page navigation, moving content that cannot be turned off and other mechanisms that cannot be easily turned off are common web issues effecting these individuals. A good tip could be to increase the clickable range. People with mobility issues, intellectual disabilities, those who get tremors may be unable to click within a small area. Increasing clickable range saves users from having to play darts with their mouse. At the same time, using a simple and logical structure to organize appropriately tagged content using corresponding HTML tags for headings, lists, etc., will help.
Difficulty with physical movement: Often referred to as “motor disabilities,” physical limitations can also lead to web inaccessibility. Websites without full keyboard or mouse support, ones that require time limits to complete tasks and others that require certain orientation cues can cause issues for those with physical disabilities. Make sure that there is an alternate way to navigate. If you have functions that can get activated on the use of mouse click, then consider having a way to activate the same command using a keyboard. Some individuals with mobility or dexterity impairments are unable to use the traditional keyboard and mouse on a computer. Thus, they may use a special keyboard or mouse that has unique switches, joysticks or shortcuts for easier access.
Difficulty speaking: People with autism, apraxia or cluttering often struggle with web accessibility, especially when services include speech interaction. We have often noticed that several services (including emergency services) only offer a phone number or voice interaction method as its medium to contact. Those with speech disabilities are unable to fully interact with these services. As a developer, ensure that there is never only a single input method to interact with your technology. If your app requires the user to speak, then make sure there is a way for users to input the same command using a keyboard and vice-versa. Perhaps this will explain why our favorite personal assistant SIRI started supporting inputs from a keyboard, despite speech-based interaction working fine for most people.
The good news is there is significant work happening the world over on improving accessibility of the digital environment. Large technology companies have dedicated teams, earmarked budgets, and identified a leader that may be part of the C-Suite, called the Chief Accessibility Officer. As a result, many products — especially those coming from mainstream popular technology providers such as Apple, Microsoft, and Google — are accessible. Designers, developers and owners of a technology that includes a website or mobile app can significantly enhance participation and remove barriers encountered by persons with disabilities. The suggestions above can serve as a starting point, or something to spark your interest in accessibility.
If you would like to know more, refer to W3C – Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for in-depth understanding of accessibility. These tips are small but important steps any organization can take to ensure individuals with disabilities have access to the internet.
If you are committed to creating a world that is friendlier to those with disabilities, technology remains your best ally!