Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Discussing Online Accessibility on International Day of the Disabled Person

Today is the international Day of the Disabled Person, so it’s fitting that the United Nations and Internet professionals and experts worldwide have gathered at the Internet Governance Forum in Hyderabad to address the issue of improving website accessibility for the disabled.

The session, my first of the conference, was called “Information Accessibility: Equal Access & Equal Opportunity to People with Disabilities”. Overall, there was a lot of focus on the role of standards for website accessibility, but it was rather short on actual plans for its widespread adoption.

For those new to the field of website accessibility there was good background information provided on the issue’s history, scope, and its importance. While my personal research has focused on website accessibility for the visually impaired, the issue also covers various disabilities such as hearing, cognitive, and physical.
The presentations repeated the key messages that 1) the Internet is an increasingly important resource in many aspects of life, e.g. education, government services, business, recreation so disabled people should not be shut out 2) All people should have equal access and equal opportunity to resources online or otherwise 3) Internet can be particularly able to help the disabled more actively participate in society. Representatives from China and India both stated their countries commitment to this issue and it was pointed out that 26 countries have enacted policy or law on the issue of Internet accessibility.

The first speaker opened with some sobering statistics: 600 million people around the world have a disability (I suspect that number would be much higher if you count people with low to diminished vision, which is particularly relevant for online readers). 186 million children with disabilities haven’t completed primary school. There are clearly opportunities for an accessible Internet to improve people lives, as the first speaker said “these are not just figures they are real people – and we simply cannot afford to say it’s your problem go fend for yourself”. All the speakers were in agreement that while there has been progress in devising what needs to be done, significant barriers still remain and accessibility is still not widespread.

An interesting point made by Cynthia Waddell that the notion of disability is evolving. We need to acknowledge that if there were not societal and physical barriers the concept of disability might not even exist. Bringing disabled people into the mainstream is a way to help end marginalization and in some cases poverty. As more and more of life moves online, the issue of website accessibility becomes important.

Both Cynthia and an accessibility expert from the W3C, Shadi Abou-Zahra, pointed out the issue has various spheres that must be addressed. These spheres would be web authoring software, web developers, browsing software, and assistive technology. Web design historically has not included accessible design for persons with disabilities. Web developers tend to not educated sufficiently on this issue. Even web authoring software didn’t help and often hindered. Assistive technology is making strides but it isn’t enough on its own. Browsers are getting more standard compliant, but this has only recently been the case.

I must admit that while I completely agree with the speakers that assert that accessibility is a human right for all and that more policy is needed, I don’t believe this issue will resonate or convince businesses and organizations around the world to make their website accessible. So I felt a crucial point was made by Shadi when he listed the auxiliary benefits of accessibility.

Shadi pointed out that accessible sites are more compatible with mobile technologies, addresses the needs of our ageing demographics, and can open up new markets. I have found that when I state to business people not only the social benefits of accessibility but also the business benefits this helps give the issue more priority than it would otherwise have. As Shadi pointed out accessibility features can improve experience for all users: “Think of it like an elevator. I need an elevator to access a building, but an elevator benefits everyone”.

Overall, the session was a good backgrounder on the issue, but I was disappointed that the focus on standards and policy leaves behind the web developers in the field whom may have heard of this issue but then must struggle with limited (or no) resources or budget to adopt this. So I raised this point to the speakers.

My question was (yes there was a long preamble) as one who has worked as a web developer and producer for the past ten years and is now researching Internet accessibility, that while I applaud the efforts at creating accessibility standards, they are not enough. The standards are complicated to follow, there are not specifics of how to do it, and the existing educational material is not much help. For example, it’s easy to say don’t use tables for layout but it is difficult to actually make that happen even when building a website from scratch, let alone retrofitting one. It’s also easy to say beware of colour blindness when designing web navigation, but there are many different types of colour blindness and the tools to help demonstrate the issue are insufficient. Among the web developer community I believe awareness is fairly common – most developers know about the issue and some of the remedies – but using alt text is not enough. As the speakers acknowledge, the authoring tools must do more to support this, but also educational material needs to be more comprehensive and simpler. Training needs to be more widespread – and I would add most crucially it needs to be free too.

I was excited to learn that the next generation of W3C material on website accessibility is going to be addressing the implementation challenges. Their website was my primary source for information on this issue, and while it provided a good framework, there needed to be more practical information and feasible plans.

The discussion after the session was also interesting. We discussed the need for a central, prominent repository of templates to use for this. I pointed out how I could not find any, let alone “proper” code for how to make an accessible table, when one genuinely needs to use a table, that is for presenting tabular data like statistics. I struggled through the standards and came up with a code snippet that I added to my web team’s code snippets in Dreamweaver and then posted on my blog - but we sure need more widespread and prominent sharing of this type of work.

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