Thursday, March 25, 2010

Conference Presentation on Web Accessibility Challenges

I recently presented for my first time at an academic conference. The conference, Information Access: Commons, Control & Controversy, was held at my home faculty, iSchool at University of Toronto.

I presented on my research findings from my masters thesis. I thought it distilled my findings in a manageable way, so I thought I'd share it here.

Barriers to Adoption and Implementation of Web Accessibility
I'm Glen Farrelly, a first-year PhD student here at iSchool. My background and interests are in designing and understanding online user experience. My utopian dreams of the democratizing potential of the Internet have not been completely quelled by the realities of the ongoing digital divide. From this perspective, I'm concerned with how to create online experiences that strives to enable everyone to participate.

Web accessibility refers to users being able to perceive and operate publically available websites regardless of their abilities. Users can be blocked by design or code barriers based on: vision, hearing, cognitive ability, and mobility or motor control.

In line with the social model of disability, I believe that it is artificial barriers that create disability that may not otherwise exist. These barriers can apply not only to permanently disabled people but for those temporarily or situationally disabled as well.

Internet enables and disables
Many people use the Internet and find it helpful for various facets of their life from work to entertainment. The Internet has the potential to aid disabled people to overcome some barriers. For example, online shopping for people with mobility impairments helped reduced their self-reported rates of disability (Spillman, 2004). Also deaf people have been avid adopters of text and instant messaging as a preferred method of communication. It is for reasons such as these that lead to 54% of respondents to a UK survey (2002) listing Internet access as essential, compared to only 6% of the general population.

Despite this potential, accessibility rates in Canada and globally remain very low. The UN commissioned a review of popular websites in 2006 of 20 countries and only 7% passed the most basic accessibility measures. Inaccessibility of online content was attributed to result in less than half as many disabled people using the Internet compared to the nondisabled, in an US Study (Dobransky & Hargittai, 2006). This issue also affects more Canadians than most people realize, as 14 per cent of, or 4.4 million, identified themselves as disabled (Statistics Canada, 2007).

Web inaccessibility
Here’s an example U.of T. students and faculty may have encountered. The low contrast of the text on the navigational menus is hard to read probably for most users, but for those users with vision impairment this can be a complete block. Another problem with this webpage is the fan out menu at times requires very precise mouse movement or it closes. This is a block for those with motor impairments, such as those with Parkinson's disease. Personally, I can attest it's extremely difficult to use on a laptop.

Considering the diversity of human ability, it is unlikely that anyone can build a website that everyone can use. The goal then is to make content as accessible as possible.

The solution?
There are three approaches to making online content more accessible:
  1. Adaptive technology can allow for multimodal outputs or alternative inputs. For example, screen reader software can read the contents of a webpage to a blind person. But even though tech continues to get more sophisticated there are still problems, for example screen readers cannot compensate for images that don't have alternative text to describe it.
  2. Automated conversion can be done various ways. This month YouTube opened up its free software to automatically caption user videos. Solutions like this may address the challenge of making the extreme long tail of online content more accessible but they still present barriers. For example, I'm dubious that autocaptioning software will be able to compensate for poor audio levels, overlapping speech, slang, etc.
  3. Human development is probably the best way to make the content more accessible. That is, the content creators build the content in ways that extend its functionality and flexibility. For example, describing the meaning of an image is best done by its creator.
To aid practitioners in the nebulous goal of making their content accessible, the W3C, in collaboration with academic, industrial, and disability organizations worldwide published the Web Content Authoring Guidelines (WCAG) in 1999. WCAG is the world’s predominant guidelines and informs other guidelines such as Canada’s CLF and the US’ Section 508. There are 3 degrees of voluntary compliance. The W3C has focused their efforts on further refining the guidelines, I'd say more so than on education and outreach.

In Canada, at least, no organization or government office is leading the charge to deliver educational resources, training, or awareness campaigns. As accessibility is not expressly required in any jurisdiction I am aware of and as disability issues can be ignored by corporate power, web accessibility has tended to fall on individual practitioners.

The way to make more accessible websites is there, but practitioners have to find out about it themselves, figure out how to do it themselves, implement it themselves, and often make a convincing business case to do so. Numerous studies have shown however that most websites in a variety of sectors are not even following the most basic guidelines. To help make the web more accessible, I felt it is important to understand what are the stumbling blocks to adoption. To do this, one needs to understand those our society has charged with implementing this issue: web practitioners.

Web accessibility adoption challenges have largely been ignored both in academic and trade literature. In addition, research actually consulting web practitioners is even more rare as it appears that there are only three such studies.

My research
I conducted 21 semi-structured interviews with a variety of web practitioners across Canada. I asked practitioners not only how they encountered the issue of accessibility and disability, but also how they implemented in on their day-to-day job. They offered both their obstacles and solutions.

Web Accessibility Diffusion & Implementation Model
Out of the interviews various diffusion and implementation factors were identified, which lead me to develop this model.

Flowchart showing the web accessibility's diffusion challenges, which are education, media, societal attitudes, market forces, and policy and the implementation challenges which are the guidelines, instructional material, authoring tools, testing support, hired help

Diffusion refers to how a practitioner hears about an issue, learns the specifics, and formulates attitudes. The diffusion of accessibility is also affected by knowledge and perceptions about disability in general. Implementation refers to the factors that impact a practitioner's ability to produce accessible online content.

Web practitioners
The first challenge in this issue is that practitioners are not a homogenous group, but represent various responsibilities, backgrounds, and skills.Web practitioners include:
  • programmers
  • designers
  • developers
  • webmasters
  • producers
  • writers and editors
  • animators
  • assistants
  • managers
  • bloggers
  • podcasters
These roles can be performed by professionals, volunteers, hobbyists, and those with multiple non-web responsibilities. With web 2.0, now almost anyone can author web content. There are challenges with web accessibility with professionals, let alone the additional challenges with amateurs due to the differing levels of skill and commitment. My study focused on professionals and avid amateurs, but the larger scope is clearly a considerable obstacle.

Innovations are less apt to diffuse if they are difficult to understand or use, require significant resources, or are incompatible with existing norms and values. Web accessibility meets all these criteria.

The guidelines are highly technical and yet like much of disability issues, education and media were found to not adequately cover the topic. Most participants recalled that they had not encountered this issue suitably - or at all - in their career training, in the media or trade events.

While many accessibility measures can be implemented with no additional costs, some measures do require more effort and scale and competitive environment can be a factor. One participant who managed a large site with thousands of technical reports had to remove the bulk of them as it was taking days to convert a single report. There appears to be no specific tax breaks or financial incentives to help mitigate this cost.

As far as I'm aware, there are no laws expressly requiring websites to be accessible – although there are prohibitions on discrimination. Federal and provincial governments have passed policies requiring their own websites to be accessible. But Ontario is the only jurisdiction in Canada pursuing requiring web accessibility for all business and organizations that operate in the province. Even legally requiring accessibility is not guaranteed to increase compliance as a Brazilian study found. It also introduces a new problem of policing.

In interviewing practitioners who had tried to or did implement accessibility, they were frustrated with the inadequate support. Most criticism was directed at W3C and WCAG. Two participants described using it: "If I can’t navigate it, who the hell can?" and "It just gets into tech-babble. It must be completely overwhelming for those less experienced." The guidelines are not particularly accessible – they are a quagmire and are written at a level that even veteran professionals found too difficult to interpret. There are reasons for this, but W3C has not done a sufficient job at making their guidelines usable, offering help, code libraries, and tools. Instructional material is out there but not in a prominent, central location. It can be hard to find, dated, time-consuming, and dubious.

Popular commercial authoring tools such as Dreamweaver are improving their support for accessibility. With content management systems and web-based software becoming increasingly popular, however, there is a continuous need to improve functionality and transparency of features.

Similarly, testing software to automatically check for accessibility is insufficient and often unknown by participants. Although testing software is improving, certain items must be tested with disabled users. In general there is a lack of any user testing, so the need for human testing is problematic.

Considering how difficult this is some practitioners have turned to hiring experts. As there are no organizations in Canada offering free guidance – even CNIB charges for accessibility services - web accessibility is being commercialized. Alarmingly, three participants hired so-called accessibility experts that amounted to charlatans and failed to deliver on some basic accessibility measures.

No matter the societal changes, software sophistication, or increased support, the onus will still fall on practitioners to make the line by line and graphic by graphic changes on a daily basis to make web accessibility a reality. To do this, practitioners needs to be aware of their important role in the disability divide. As one participant put it:

Web developers can be proactive, so they need to let companies know it’s an issue and that including it is just part of our standard services. No companies would say no to this. Or you can just do it.

Finally, research is needed to study how web practitioners work, how they use the guidelines, support tools, and software. This research can then be used to make the implementation tools and resources more usable and transparent.

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