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On Web Accessibility: Sharron Rush (Knowbility)

Posted on 8.21.2008

WM: Describe the human element behind website accessibility?

SR: Think of the ways you use technology every day - and then imagine being locked out of those avenues of finding information and communicating.  Accessibility is needed not to meet some dry government mandate, but to insure that everyone can participate both as producers and consumers in this incredible information marketplace that continues to evolve and grow.  People with disabilities often use adaptive software called assistive technology or AT.  AT devices are available that can read text on a page aloud, for example for blind users; can adapt input and output methods for people with mobility impairments who may not be able to use a mouse; can change font size and contrast for those with low vision; and perform many other adaptive functions.  When web sites are designed to a common accessibility standard, then these tools "speak the same language" as the web browsers and people with various disabilities have access.

WM: Why does it matter if websites are accessible?

SR: People with disabilities want the same things as everyone...equal opportunities to learn, to work, to live independently and to communicate with family, friends, government and business entities.  Technology makes all of this more possible than ever before, and accessibility is the key.  People with disabilities are often less able to travel around a region and so online learning, shopping, registering for government services and other daily tasks are made much more feasible through the Internet.  If sites are not accessible, however, the experience becomes frustrating and can be completely impossible.  As a society, we can not afford to leave out this array of human talent.

WM: What is the business case for accessibility?

SR:  There are three major components to the so-called "business case"
1.  It is a large (750 million people world wide, 55 million Americans) and growing (because the population is aging and disability tends to be age related) market.  Forbes Magazine estimates the buying power of this market at more than 1 trillion dollars a year. 
2.  People with disabilities tend to be more dependable employees than others.  If you use accessible technology to accommodate their needs, they will demonstrate a loyalty and commitment to their jobs that is far above the norm.
3.  Accessibility supports diversity goals that most corporations have accepted as a way to make their corporate culture more flexible, adaptable and innovative.

WM: What markets are available for companies that pursue accessibility?

SR: Most federal and state government agencies have accessibility mandates, but accessible design makes all avenues and markets available in unexpected ways.  For example, search engine ratings are optimized when graphic and audio/video content is transcribed through alt-text, captions, and audio descriptions; accessibly designed web pages tend to be more usable by mobile browsing devices; designing to standards allows emerging services and products to be designed to that common standard, thereby increasing innovation and the ability across the board to quickly adopt innovations.

WM: In one sentence, what is accessibility?

SR: Accessibility means that people with disabilities are able to access the same information and perform the same functions as any other user.

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?

SR: A software company that my company, Knowbility worked with had a blind programmer on staff who excelled in the mainframe environment when he could work with the text he needed to write code.  As more of the internal communications moved online, the team developed an intranet site that depended on Javascripted elements for project management tasks.  Many of these elements were not accessible to the screenreader that the blind programmer used.  He became much less productive as a result, missing meetings and critical pieces of information and his job was actually at risk.  Team members would say, well we tried to remember to send him email or call him, but as busy as they were, they often forgot.    By working with the team and showing them how to improve the accessibility of their shared project management tool, the blind programmer was returned to a position of valued team member, the team itself became more productive and several of the team members remarked that the entire user interface was much easier for them to use as well.

WM: What is keeping accessibility from being a mainstream element in website design?

SR: I have been working in accessibility for more than 10 years and it seems to me that the practice of universal IT design is in fact, becoming mainstream among innovators because the benefits so far outweigh the costs.

WM: What department in your company is the biggest advocate for accessibility?

SR: We are accessibility advocates - everyone shares the understanding of the need for accessibility.

WM: What is the greatest challenge accessibility faces over the next 2 years?

SR: Rapid change of technology.  That is why shared standards are so important.  Just as in the build environment, we must learn to build accessibility into every product from the beginning.

WM: Is there anything else I need to know about accessibility?

SR: It's not just about including people with disabilities, it's about including everyone.  The late Dr. John Slatin, an accessibility pioneer, always said that "Good design IS accessible design."  We often point to accommodations out here in the built environment....wheelchair ramps, the sloping curbcuts at street intersections, TV captioning, automatic door opening mechanisms,  large toilet stalls for wheelchair access, wider doors, etc.    Think for a moment about how those are used in the real world - travellers pulling luggage, parents of kids in strollers, people in airports and restaurants who can't hear the TV, etc.  So it is with technology - online applications are made more user-friendly for everyone when universal design techniques are implemented.  People take in information in different ways and the more options that are provided, the more effective your communication will be with everyone.


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