Web Accessibility: Is Your Content Ready for Everyone?

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HELPFUL TECHNOLOGIES NEED HELP

The assistive technologies used by many people with disabilities rely on good programming to make sites accessible and usable. For instance, screen readers-which take text on the screen and send it to a speech synthesizer or Braille display-can't read nontext content. That means sites must have a text alternative to describe an image. One way is to place a description around the image; another is to code it with descriptive words in an "alt attribute" that is invisible on screen but can be read by screen readers.

Without alt attributes that have "alt text" or are programmed to look empty, screen readers may end up reading the full file path of an image, such as, ImagesNovember22xyzpdq

1235678910.jpg. "A screen reader can only interpret on screen what's there, so programmatically if what's there is garbage, it can't do anything with it," Groves says.

However, the task of identifying images for screen readers can be tricky. "Careful consideration should be made when writing alt text," says Clint Fisher, senior web developer at The New York Times. "The contextual placement of images makes it challenging to write accurate alt text, and in an organization as large as ours, this may mean potentially many different contexts. It takes the work of both photo editors and developers."

Take the alt text for The Times logo, for example. "Is it inside a link that sends a user to the nytimes

.com? If so, then the alt text would read something like, ‘alt="New York Times web site.'" If the logo is more for presentation, then it would probably say, ‘alt="New York Times,'" Fisher explains.

Keeping keyboard accessibility in mind is imperative for coders. For example, when using the programming language JavaScript, developers need to ensure it can react to a "click event" not only from a mouse, but also from a keyboard. "A lot of developers do stuff with JavaScript without thinking about it from anything other than their own perspective. [They think,] ‘I have a mouse, I can click this control with my mouse, and I'm good to go,'" Groves says. "But some people can't operate a mouse-they either can't see the pointer or they don't have the fine motor control or even the limbs."

SHARED BENEFITS OF ACCESSIBILITY

Notably, accessibility doesn't always relate to assistive technologies, and building sites that help visitors with disabilities can be universally beneficial. For instance, many users appreciate a good visual presentation. "Dark gray on black is hard for people who can see to read and definitely not easy for somebody who is color blind or has low vision to see," James-Tanny says.

Likewise, tools such as captions for online lectures can be advantageous for many in the audience. The Distance Learning Accessibility Com­mittee at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg recently substantiated that idea after captioning two online courses. Karla Kmetz, an instructional designer at the school who chairs the committee, says a survey about the captioning pilot revealed the text supported students with hearing impairments as well as learning, attention, and processing disabilities-but they weren't the only ones aided. The captions were also helpful to non-native speakers, note takers, and students watching the lectures in places where they couldn't turn on the sound, such as a library.

As a bonus of sorts, making sites accessible can improve SEO too. For instance, elements such as alt attributes and video transcripts can help search engines understand there are images or videos on a page, explains Austin Paley, corporate marketing communications manager at the digital agency Blue Fountain Media. "For websites that are trying to get the most out of their SEO, it means that content is easily consumed by those who have trouble hearing or viewing the same types of content as Google's crawl bots," he says. "It makes for a much nicer overall user experience as a result, and Google has said time and time again that user experience is an important factor for SEO."

COMPLIANCE CONCERNS

There is a legal aspect to accessibility too. Barriers to content can put sites at legal risk because people can claim discrimination under federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA does not specifically mention websites or mobile devices--the act was passed in 1990, which was before the internet had wide consumer use. But a decade later, in an Advance Notice of Proposed Rule­making, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said it was considering amend­ing regulations of the act "to require public entities and public accommodations that provide products or services to the public through Web sites on the Internet to make their sites accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities under the legal frame­work established by the ADA."

At press time, the department still had not published its proposed regulations, but it has been taking legal action against companies with websites that it says aren't ADA-compliant. In Novem­ber 2014, for instance, the DOJ entered into a settlement agreement with the internet grocer Peapod, which the department alleged had a website that wasn't accessible to some individuals with disabilities. Peapod agreed to take steps such as adopting a formal web accessibility policy and following the WCAG standards for its website and mobile application.

"Anyone who has content on the web needs to understand there are disability discrimination implications if the content is not available to everybody," says disability rights lawyer Lainey Feingold. "I think that once people get it on their radar screen, once they think about it that way and ask themselves, ‘Hmm, I'm putting up content and don't I want it to be available to everyone?' then they're going to take the steps necessary to make their site accessible, which will also ensure they're not a target of the next lawsuit."

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To be sure, the real-time captions that appeared on the Facebook Live feed were frequently incomprehensible, which couldn't be anything but awkward when more than 75 thousand viewers were watching Zuckerberg's speech, on Zuckerberg's platform, in real time. You can bet there were executives at Facebook's headquarters whose faces were turning that particular shade of red known as Harvard crimson.