Making digital information more accessible

Think for a moment about your typical day online.

You might review your checking account balance and then pay some bills. You might remember to send a gift directly to one person, and save a couple of items on your wish list. Then, you might check the weather for a planned cookout next weekend, and then scan the news headlines.

Most certainly, your job might require a couple of hours facing a screen each day. I’m a remote writer, so I spend my business hours sharing knowledge across the digital divide. My grown stepson owns his own handy man business and works on job sites. However, he recently purchased a tablet to keep records, send invoices, and prepare cost estimates.

Now, imagine those same online experiences—except now you’re blind. You can’t see anything on a screen and have to rely on adaptive technology to help you navigate the Internet. How you would feel about those experiences?

Here, Tommy Edison explains how he uses the computer, even though he’s blind:

Fortunately, the online experience for visually impaired people might not be as bad as you think. Print-disabled users get some benefits from broadband and digital telecommunications advances.

Of the 180 million people in the world who are blind or visually impaired, 77 million lived in the U.S. in 1997, according to data cited in  Theofanos and Redish (2005).

The accessibility legal basics

According to Lazar and Hochheiser (2013), information design professionals should be familiar with the four major laws that define the U.S. accessibility standards:

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973)—Entities that get federal funding cannot discriminate against disabled people, and this law often gets mentions in court actions initiated by lawyers.
  • Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (1998)—This law requires federal agencies to make their public Web spaces accessible to everyone.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (1990)—Initially designed to ensure that public facilities were made available to people with disabilities, this law has since been expanded to include Web sites following civil action following civil action by large associations representing disabled persons against major retailers, among other industries, according to As Lazar and Hochheiser (p. 78). As a result, major companies have adopted ADA-friendly practices.
  • 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (2010)—This law requires mobile devices to be more accessible, and it created an agency to coordinate these regulations.

“Everyone benefits”

As Lazar and Hochheiser (2013) noted, accessible design leads to innovative changes that a broader audience can enjoy. Plus, it’s good business. “Apple’s iOS (iPhone and iPad) operating systems include many novel accessibility features, including speech recognition, screen reading, and support for gesturing by people who might be unable to see or use a touchscreen” (p. 76).

If IT complains about time and cost, “retrofitting” existing systems for the new accessibility standards may only add up to 3% to the development cost (Wentz & Lazar, as cited in Lazar & Hochheiser, p. 80).

Here’s an introduction the JAWS screen reader, the most common tool used by the visually impaired to access Internet content:

What can we do better?

I complete annual training on this subject, but the following guidance is based on my cursory knowledge and everyday experiences. I am familiar with but am not an expert on Web accessibility, which deserves more scrutiny. Here are a few basic steps you can take to make your content more accessibility to the print-impaired:

  • Make information and digital content more flexible. If you share a video, try to have a transcript available for screen readers.
  • Ensure existing pages include proper coding. These practices include alt-text coded with images—especially buttons—that contain words.
  • “Never rely on color alone to convey functional meaning” (Theofanos & Redish). In financial services, we may show gains or losses in green and red, respectively, but the colors are accompanied by actual numbers and symbols that convey the changes in value.
  • Try to separate text and presentation. In other words, as you review your content for potential issues, can someone who can’t see the words on the image understand the message?
  • Avoid flashing and rapid scrolling. Movement catches the eye, but hinders the eyesight-impaired. Besides, these visual distractions generally add little value to the overall message.
  • Consider text-based documents over PDFs. Screen readers such as JAWS often can’t access the rigid content in PDFs (ADA tool kit, para. b).
  • Update your utilities for more viewing flexibility. Users appreciate the ability to increase font size in their own browsers. Background colors or watermark images, too, pose obstacles to the visually impaired.

As information designers, we should never assume that other people perceive the same things the way do. As a matter of good practice, we shouldn’t assume that readers, Internet browsers, online clients, virtual students, and Web surfers can see at all.

However, as our digital content gets more complex, the need to make that content accessible to all users increases at the same time. And depending on where you work or what your company does, those practices might be required under federal law.

References

Accessible Wireless Technology [Screen name]. (2009, June 11). Basic overview of the JAWS screen reader [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/qiKWTTtGq7U

ADA best practices tool kit for state and local governments. Retrieved from http://www.ada.gov/

Ellis, K., & Kent, M. (2011). Disability and New Media [electronic version]. Taylor & Francis: eLibrary. Retrieved from https://books.google.com

Lazar, J., & Hochheiser, H. (2013, December). Legal aspects of interface accessibility in the U.S. Communications of the ACM, 56(12), 74-80. doi: 10.1145/2500498

Theofanos, M.-F, & Redish, G. (2005, February). Helping low-vision and other users with web sites that meet their needs: Is one site for all feasible? Technical Communication, 52(1), 9-20.

Tommy EdisonXP [Screen name]. (2013, July 16). How a blind person uses a computer [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/UzffnbBex6c

Wentz, B., Jaeger, P., and Lazar, J. (2011, November). Retrofitting accessibility: The inequality of after-the-fact access for persons with disabilities in the United States. First Monday 16(11). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/

–Kris Spadaccia

(The opinions expressed in this blog and on this site are my own.)

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