Technology and Access (for all)

By on March 26th, 2013 in Ethics, Societal Impact, Topics

Technology moves from “neat idea” to “essential” when things go right.  The Internet and World Wide Web are examples that have made this transition.  Persons with disabilities and their advocate groups are suing to assure that web sites are accessible   They argue that there are well defined mechanisms for increasing the ability of persons who are deaf, blind and with some other limitations to navigate and utilize web sites, and that web retailers have the same obligation to implement these as they would physical store accessibility.

The Web Consortium has had accessibility guidelines and mechanisms identify for over a decade.  The “WAI” activity — web accessibility initiative, has defined mechanisms for accessibility such as: “alt text” information for pictures that describes the content of the picture, and navigation between selection fields in a defined order to simplify access for persons who are not operating with vision and a mouse.  There is even an “Authoring Guide” currently in review that provides expert insight on how to use the available facilities for best effect.

I happened to lead the effort in 1998-2003 that produced a IEEE/ISO standard for web site engineering best practices.  While some of the concepts of that standard, for example using HTML 4.0 have been overcome (a current version would advocate HTML 5), many of the points are still on target.  A well engineered web site must have agreed standards for the creation and management of the site.  A company without guidelines along these lines is not managing their web site(s) with good engineering practices.  Such guidelines are not  externally dictated, but defined based on the business of the company and external reality. For example, every well managed web site should have a targeted range of browsers, versions of HTML, CSS, and other tools as well as devices — Android, iPhone, etc. that are targeted, ones that are “must haves” and associated quality testing to assure these work. Layout considerations such as color combinations, logo placement, footer links, etc. also should be mandated by the organizations guidelines.  Even exceptions to these guidelines should be noted — for example a University may have their guidelines, defer to Blackboard for their online educational environment, and exempt their students web sites from conformance.

Organizational guidelines should speak to accessibility.  This might reject forms of accessibility as being inappropriate for the business, or might mandate them all — both approaches are not well considered.  The IEEE Standard calls for a checklist, which includes all of the Web Consortium guidelines (at the time).  The standard also incorporates the US Government Section 508 mandates relevant to web site accessibility. The IEEE/ISO standard mandates very little for a “conforming web site”, but does require some minimal accessibility, and more importantly documentation of which accessibility features are required by the organization.

The ongoing message for technologists is that we need to consider when our creations have gone ‘mainstream’, and as they do that, make sure that the mainstream embraces or at least considers everyone.  Web accessibility recommendations such as “alt text” also increase the web site presence in search engines — so doing the “right thing” for persons with limited sight also benefits the company.  Creating transcripts of videos or audios can do the same thing — increasing visibility, and also make the content easier to understand for persons who do not have great skills in the initial presentation language.

As technology moves from “neat” to “necessary” we also need to move from “for us” to “for all”.