As a fairly recent convert to the need for accessibility, I sometimes feel like one of the holier than now smokers that are now non-smokers. I work for a government agency that not only is compelled by law to make things “508 compliant”, but also supports the largest employee and customer populations that require assistive technology. So you can imagine my frustration when senior leaders fail to understand the importance and direct the publication of documents, websites, and applications that are not accessible. I am doing what I can to change that so wish me luck.

I Hate Section 508

I know that may sound blasphemous to some, but the reality is that it tends to be a hindrance to true accessibility. For those that do not know, Section 508 refers to an amendment to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is a federal law mandating that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. Many, especially in government, feel that if they meet the letter of the law they have created accessible content. Simply meeting technical requirements does not make something accessible and in some cases can make content inaccessible. The recent normalization with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0 was a huge step in the right direction from a technical standpoint, but to that end, they should have just adopted Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as the technical standard so that updates are automatically inherited – some of the changes to 2.1 are very important and probably won’t be required under Section 508 for years.

True Accessibility

As I mentioned before, true accessibility is more than meeting Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or Section 508, but what does that really mean? Accessibility is truly providing any end user with the same functionality, understanding, and access  (FUA for those that love initialisms) regardless of how they receive the information. The primary focus for most people and organizations is on functionality (aria roles, form labels, etc.) with only a half-hearted attempt to address understanding with alt text, table headers, and the like, and almost no consideration for access.

Access

This one is hugely overlooked and is almost always based on the assumption that everybody has a smartphone or a computer, and that they all have high-speed access. Neither of these assumptions is true.

The first assumption, access to a smartphone or computer, fails to recognize that there are many users that don’t have either. Does this mean they should not have access to information? Absolutely not. Providing this information in a physical form or by talking to a real person is probably more important than the web version. I say this because by focusing on the offline content and creating materials that can be understood by the intended audience without the use of images, graphics, and visualization helps eliminate what I refer to as assumptive understanding (just because a person can see it means they understand it).

Understanding

Understanding the content that is presented is the foundation of everything. Whether is is literal understanding or cognitive understanding, we have to do a better job of making sure what is seen, read, or heard is understood as intended.

In government, we have a tendency to speak in jargon, acronyms, and sometime just plain doublespeak, all with the idea the people know what we mean. Nothing could be further from the truth. I work in a government organization and the use of acronyms even within departments is ridiculous, and the level of understanding is literally office-deep at best. The plain language law is an effort to fix this but it is still an unknown among most content creators. Other industries have similar bad practices, but are not mandated to follow the plain language laws which ultimately hurts their bottom line. I would say this is especially applicable in small to mid-size businesses that do not have professional content creators nor do they have the budget to hire them, but understand that a web presence is a must in the 21st century.

Cognitive understanding, in my way of thinking, relates to the ability to discern what to do when presented features on a website, app, or even in a magazine or brochure. Is the  website easy to navigate, does it help users focus on how to accomplish a task the easiest and fastest way possible? A couple of US government websites have made changes recently to dramatically improves the user experience, but the majority are still a long way off.

Functionality

Functionality refers to the technical capability of a digital product to work regardless of how a user tries to access the information. This is the core of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and Section 508. Amazingly, when html was introduced, it was built around the concept of functional accessibility, but over the years designers and developers have introduces methods and tools that drastically reduce this accessibility – anyone ever use a div as a button, instead of a button. Styling a link to look like a button helps with cognitive understanding of sighted users (user is meant to push the button), but if not handled correctly can reduce accessibility for non-sighted users.

Other trends, especially in website design, also have a negative impact on understanding, access, and functionality. These include the use of large images and other file types that make websites slow to load on low quality connection or computers with small amounts of memory, stock photography that is unrelated to the subject, and popup adds that are irritating and can confuse new visitors.

As we enter 2019 there seems to be an attitude shift in many industries with regard to accessibility. Not all are altruistic with some prompted by lawsuits and others by the potential impact to their bottom line. I know it took me a long time to see the light, but now that I have, I can’t let it be extinguished by the bureaucrats.

This is a work in progress and I am open to critiques and suggestions.