On Web Accessibility: Anne Taylor (National Federation of the Blind)
WM: Describe the human element behind website accessibility?
AT: The user experience of the blind on an inaccessible website can easily be compared to sighted individuals in a totally disorganized price club store with thousands of unlabeled products packages, mismatch labeled shelves or unlabeled isles, total confusion. No business wants to deliver such a horrible shopping experience to the customers. Regrettably, this is what blind individuals are encountering on the inaccessible websites. Blind individuals need accessible websites in order to benefit from products and services offered on the internet. To surf the web, the blind must have an internet ready computer, and screen access software that will render web content in to speech. While the blind navigate through the WebPages, we listen for important HTML navigation controls such as links; edit boxes, or combo boxes. If these controls are labeled properly, then we will have no problem accessing the sites. However, if websites contain improperly labeled HTML controls we just simply cannot use the sites.
In response to repeated reports from the National Federation of the Blind(NFB)'s membership about the issues listed above, the NFB launched our Nonvisual Accessibility Certification, the only certification that incorporated automated and human usability testing, to reward and showcase sites that are friendly to blind consumers. Once a site becomes accessible, we publicize that to our membership and reward that company with more business.
WM: Why does it matter if websites are accessible?
AT: There are ten million blind and low vision consumers in the United States; and that group is at the moment mostly denied access. Having
user friendly web sites is just the same as having a handicap-accessible store front if you are in the business of selling anything on the Web. When businesses continue to deploy inaccessible websites, and when web design companies continue to ignore published web accessibility guidelines/standards, a message is sent to the blind consumers that we are not welcome. Even though in person the blind are not prohibited from shopping at any bricks and mortar store, on the internet the blind are constantly turned away due to inaccessible websites.
WM: What is the business case for accessibility?
AT: Imagine walking up to a store and finding the entrance bricked up. I don't think any business would consider blocking an entrance, even of a small store, a good business practice; yet the equivalent of this is done to the ten million blind and low vision consumers every day. The relatively minor efforts involved in making a Web site accessible and obtaining NFB NVA Certification are minor hurdles when it comes to
reaching an additional ten million potential customers.
WM: What markets are available for companies that pursue accessibility?
AT: Age-related vision loss is becoming more and more common, so seniors are a prominent group of blind consumers, as are diabetics. In fact, age-related blindess is expected to double in the next 10 to 20 years. This could mean that over 16 million americans, once used to using their eyesight, must adapt to being non-sighted. The NFB NVA Certification has high visibility in these communities, as the NFB is considered a main resource to the blind and to those with low vision. The NFB promotes certified Web sites at different events and on its Web site.
WM: In one sentence, what is accessibility?
AT: Accessibility means equivalent ease of use for the blind and sighted population.
WM: Can you talk about a case study or tell me a story that helps me understand what it means for your site to be accessible or inaccessible?
AT: While the blind are working hard to earn a living and have money to spend, it is still a challenge for us to manage our bank accounts on the Web, pay bills online, or shop using the Internet. The failure of software developers to make their applications accessible means that an otherwise qualified blind person may be unable to obtain a job as a manager because he or she cannot review employee time sheets. A blind college student will have difficulty competing equally with their sighted peers because they cannot participate in on-line class discussions and collaborative projects because the two most popular e-learning products, BlackBoard and WebCT, lack accessible interfaces. This lack of accessibility is not a technological barrier; it is a design factor - many designers don't build accessibility into their applications because they lack the training or awareness to do so.
WM: What is keeping accessibility from being a mainstream element in website design?
AT: The lack of knowledge of accessibility standards and the needs of blind users makes designing accessible Web sites look harder than it is. On top of that, Web designers often find themselves faced with having to retrofit a site for accessibility, when building it that way would have
been simpler and cheaper.
WM: What is the greatest challenge accessibility faces over the next 2 years?
AT: The emergence of dynamic html and other new Web technologies has presented new challenges to Web site accessibility. Care should be taken when designing sites that make use of techniques such a Ajax and Flash to present an appealing interface to include features that make the site usable by the blind as well. Captchas, distorted graphics that verify that a user is human are a significant problem for blind users as they are not readable by screen access software.
WM: Is there anything else I need to know about accessibility?
AT: Please visit http://www.nfb.org/nfb/certification_intro.asp to learn more about accessibility and the NFB NVA Certification