How to Ensure IT Accessibility in Applications and Websites

 
 
By Michelle Bagur  |  Posted 2010-09-22
 
 
 

How to Ensure IT Accessibility in Applications and Websites


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one of the most broad-reaching pieces of legislation of this generation and it has a significant impact on the technology industry. Section 508 of the ADA protects the disabled against discrimination-specifically within the IT industry. It states that inaccessible technology interferes with a person's ability to obtain and use information quickly and easily and, as such, it is a form of discrimination.

According to the summary of Section 508 standards, it also aims to expand opportunities for the disabled and encourage development of equally accessible technologies for all users. In this article, I will put accessibility in context for the enterprise, provide best practices for making sure your Website is accessible, showcase tools to help make this happen, and provide real-world examples of how this can work for your company.

Accessibility in IT

Accessibility in the IT sector means that people with disabilities or impairments have equal access to the features and functions of a software application or Website. This idea is all-encompassing and includes those with impaired mobility, vision, hearing and dexterity. The goal of accessibility in IT is to serve as many people as possible, including populations with varying levels of impairment. This is particularly important as baby boomers (a group that relies heavily on finding information and performing tasks online) continue to age and lose mobility and basic capabilities such as using a mouse to access multitiered menus.

It's important to know the technical standards and regulations set forth in Section 508. For example, software applications cannot disable accessible features, visual focus must be obvious, developers must make sufficient information about their software applications available to assistive technologies (such as screen readers and hearing aids), and developers should provide methods that allow users to skip repetitive navigation links.

Ensuring IT Accessibility


Ensuring IT accessibility

Developers can ensure their work is accessible and 508-compliant by doing the following three things:

1. Using common sense

As you're developing software or a Website, the common sense rule is that, if it's not generally easy to use, it's likely not accessible. Simple elements such as ensuring that fonts are not too small and that the design is not overly complicated will help to improve the accessibility of your application or Website.

2. Leveraging automated tools

Readily available tools can test for the absence of required elements and attributes and determine whether Websites are well-formed and will work with automated devices. There are some free automated tools available such as Firefox Accessibility Extensions. Jim Thatcher's online book chapter, Accessibility Checking Software, is a good resource for information on six commercially available Web accessibility testing tools (including WebKing from Parasoft and WebXM from Watchfire).

3. Creating and following checklists

Research the regulations and requirements, and then create a list of the accessibility features your software or Website needs to include. For example, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The WCAG are a series of Web-related documents that are part of a larger set of accessibility guidelines. While the WCAG are not intended to cover every aspect of each disability, they do cover broad topics and give developers and Website designers a launching pad from which to create applications.

Four Principals of IT Accessibility


Four principals of IT accessibility

The WCAG also include a list of checkpoints-the first step in compliance verification. According to the WCAG, four principals form the foundation of IT accessibility:

Principal No. 1: Perceivable

User interfaces and any information contained within them must be easily viewable. There also should be alternative ways to read text and access video content (that is, closed captioning). All content must be distinguishable.

Principal No. 2: Operable

Users must be able to navigate Websites and applications via a keyboard and a mouse, and they should be provided with tools or assistive technology shortcuts to determine basic navigation. Developers cannot enforce time limits on Websites and applications unless there are reasonable security concerns that justify such constraints.

Principal No. 3: Understandable

Text should be readable and understandable, Web pages should be predictable and users should have access to input assistance that allows them to correct mistakes.

Principal No. 4: Robust

Content cannot conflict with assistive technologies and it must be robust enough that those technologies can reliably interpret it. For accessibility purposes, all content must provide role names and descriptions and use well-formed markup language.

Conducting Usability Testing


Conducting usability testing

This is the single most critical aspect of ensuring your software or Website is accessible. Developers can test applications on their own by trying to navigate the application either only by ear or by only using a keyboard. This allows you to notice what the screen reader will pick up or skip over. More important, however, is real-world usability testing. While regulations and checklists provide good guidance, soliciting feedback from visually impaired or otherwise disabled users is critical, as they will be more familiar with what works and what doesn't in a real-world situation.

Benefits of providing IT accessibility

While non-federally funded companies aren't legally required to create accessible Websites or applications, doing so is becoming a common practice that not only can avert risk but also have great rewards for today's organizations.

Some large companies have already faced legal action for not taking accessibility into account. In 2006, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a class action lawsuit against Target, the national retail chain, for offering online-only discounts through its non-508-compliant Website. Its Website had been noticeably less accessible to the blind and visually impaired than its brick-and-mortar stores. As a result, after two years of litigation, Target settled and was ordered to work with the NFB to make its Website accessible.

In addition to avoiding a negative and potentially damaging lawsuit, companies that ensure accessibility in their software applications or their online presence stand to gain market share by reaching new audiences. The disabled community is a significant market. According to the National Organization on Disability, disabled adults control more than $3 trillion in discretionary income worldwide and this number is expected to increase.

The disabled community is also very loyal and tends to support and evangelize companies that provide equal access, resulting in a significant opportunity for organizations to extend their brands while gaining and retaining customers.

Michelle Bagur is a Senior Developer at EffectiveUI where she specializes in accessibility in Rich Internet Applications (RIAs). Michelle began her programming career in the gaming industry in Dallas and later moved to Denver to develop medical simulators utilizing haptic devices and advanced three-dimensional technology. Michelle earned her Master's degree in Integrated Science (a combination of computer science, physics and biology) from the University of Colorado at Denver before moving into the world of RIA development. She particularly enjoys the synthesis of technologies and platforms that RIA development encourages. She can be reached at michelle.bagur@effectiveui.com.

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