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Approaching Accessibility

By John E. Brandt, Accessible Technology Consultant for Maine CITE

About twenty years ago, I sat in the basement of the library on the campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) staring at the one of the two IBM PC computers with enough RAM (2 MB – yes, MB not GB) to run a new application called a “browser.” The application, Mosaic, was one of the first of its kind and the room quickly filled with excitement as we marveled at this new, soon-to-be called, World Wide Web (WWW).

Two years later I was the “webmaster” for the University of New England, knee-deep in creating web content and layout. There were no courses then as we taught ourselves the intricacies of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and the other assorted computer code needed to fill the WWW with content. In those early years, as we continued to drool over the graphic user interface (GUI) and “colorfulness” of the WWW (some of us still remember the world of DOS and monochrome monitors) and the ability to use hypertext (i.e., “links) to navigate from “page” to “page,” we never considered the needs of folks with disabilities. Little did we know we were closing doors for many users.

We have come a long way in those twenty years and perhaps the biggest change in the workings of the WWW over that time span has been the movement from static content to dynamic/interactive content. As the UNE webmaster, I was the only person with access to published web content; hence the “master” part of the title. But now anyone, and everyone who can log into the internet can be a content producer. It is this distinction that presents the biggest challenge to web accessibility.

There is plenty of information available detailing accessibility guidelines/standards and equally many tutorials to help designers and developers (the webmasters of today) to begin the process of ensuring that the “core” web presence is accessible to all. But ensuring the accessibility of all content created by all users is a monumental task.

Contributing to this dilemma is the fact that today’s web content is no longer simply HTML. Better, we should use the term “digital documents” to describe this content as nearly all that is communicated via the internet starts as some form of digital document.

Perhaps we need to recognize the fact that achieving full accessibility will always be just beyond our grasp. Perhaps our goal should be to “approach” accessibility, similar to the Mathematical construct of “approaching infinity.” We know we will never get there, but in the process, we maintain continuous improvement.

With these thoughts in mind, here are some practical recommendations:

  1. Create, and widely distribute, quick, easy-to-understand information “packets” describing how to create accessible digital documents.
  2. Develop smart, intuitive, easy to use accessibility “tools,” that check and assist users to make their digital documents more accessible.
  3. For public accommodations (business and organizations that legally must ensure access), develop easy-to-understand policies and procedures for checking and re-checking content and allocating and assigning the resources to monitor and respond as necessary.

Now, here’s the good news…much of this has already been done!

  1. For at least three or four years, our friends at the National Center on Disabilities and Access to Education – Goals Project have been developing and publishing sets of free, easy-to-use, “cheat sheets” to help individuals in the quest to create accessible digital documents. GOALS currently has eleven cheat sheets ranging from how to make accessible digital documents using the leading products from Microsoft and Adobe to how to caption YouTube videos. All of the materials are free and come in easy to print PDF one-pagers that may be distributed to all your content producers. Note, these resources are continually updated as the technologies change and upgrades are released. Link to National Center on Disabilities and Access to Education – Goals Project…
  2. Since its release of Office 2010, Microsoft has included the Microsoft Office – Accessibility Checker (MSO-AC) in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Here is an article about how to use the MSO-AC that we wrote for Maine CITE a few years ago and here is an on-line tutorial from Microsoft for the latest version of Office. Note that the MSO-AC does more than simply check for errors, it provides specific directions to the user on how to mitigate errors and problems. Unfortunately, the MSO-AC is currently only available for MSO for Windows.

A similar accessibility checker is also built into current versions of Adobe Acrobat and Adobe InDesign CS5.5. Use this link to see quick tutorial and “cheat sheets” for Acrobat and InDesign from NCDAE-GOALS.

  1. This is the hardest of the three recommendations to accomplish, but there has been progress. Many state agencies and educational organizations have already developed and instituted policies detailing the necessity of ensuring content accessibility. Unfortunately, often times this is being driven by fear – no one wants to see the name of their institution on the front page of the New York Times because their web site failed to meet the needs of one or more of their constituents.

Sadly, some organizations have interpreted the term “accommodation,” detailed in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as meaning they don’t have to do anything until a constituent asks for it. However, the proactive approach (not reactive) is much more likely to achieve positive results. It is not only good policy to be forward thinking, but more economical to institute the proactive practice of ensuring all your organization’s materials are accessible rather than to wait for the day when you “have to” accommodate.

For those who don’t see the value of proactive thinking, here’s a simple example using the notion of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Uncaptioned video content posted on the web is not indexed by search engines like Google or Bing. Yes, they will “see” you have a video file and will add the name of the file to their index, but the search engine will never “know” anything about the content inside the video. On the other hand, if you caption your video and post the caption file along with the video, the search engines will index the caption file and, as a result, increase the probability that people will find your web content (optimization). This simple step might result in more traffic to your website, more constituents being able to find the content on your site, and greater exposure of your organization’s mission to the entire world.

I have often said that accessibility is a “moving target.” Technologies change, methodologies change, and even the users/content creators change. Design standards and guidelines will never be able to keep up with all of these changes, so simply relying on some automated means of checking files against some written accessibility standard may bring a false sense of security.

Accessibility requires training and vigilance. Identifying someone (or preferably a team) in the organization to keep up on the changes and training is essential. Good communication between team members and the larger organization, fostering a climate of teamwork, and supporting and encouraging folks to change their behavior because they will achieve better outcomes should become your organization’s goal as you continue in your effort to “approach accessibility.”

About the Author

John E. Brandt is the owner of jebswebs.com a web design/development and consulting firm in Augusta, Maine. He may be reached at jeb@jebswebs.com .