Three experts on how to advocate for digital accessibility

Improving digital accessibility is an imperative, but are designers and developers ready to meet the challenge?

Userzoom recently launched its moderated accessibility tool, focusing its efforts on making websites and mobile apps accessible to blind users with screen readers. This product launched just weeks before the initial COVID-19 lockdown, which has consequently exacerbated digital accessibility issues that blind users face

With reduced opportunities for informal sighted assistance from colleagues, accessibility issues with online platforms and services have become even more problematic for blind users. But are designers and developers ready to meet this challenge? 

I reached out to three experts to ask about their experience and recommendations for how to advocate for and improve web accessibility.

I began by speaking with Dr. Nicholas Giudice, a professor of Spatial Computing in the School of Computing and Information Science at the University of Maine. He penned this piece, COVID-19 and Blindness: Why the new touchless, physically-distant world sucks for people with visual impairment, when the pandemic first began.

Dr. Giudice has been professionally involved with multiple efforts to improve accessibility, from automotive vehicles to textbooks, to voting. When asked about his experience trying to improve website accessibility, Dr. Giudice described the general response he receives when reaching out to companies: 

"Roadblocks to accessibility.

Companies will say ‘Yeah we know it's a problem, it's on our development list.’ It seems as though there’s a lot of bad design out there, and a lot of companies don’t provide services to help. Part of it is education and part of it is working on the front end - it’ll increase your customer base, it’ll make things better.

Dr. Nicholas Giudice

Professor of Spatial Computing, School of Computing and Information Science, University of Maine

When asked about his number one usability pet peeve, the answer was simple: unlabeled (or poorly labeled) elements. Labeling an image is perhaps one of the easiest ways to improve site accessibility, but can end up low on a developer’s priority list. 

Dr. Giudice also mentioned the issue of confirming that an action has been taken on a page:

“In a grocery app it’s making sure you know something is selected. If it doesn’t tell me, that’s a real pain. I can tell the eggs are there, but I can’t tell if they’re in my basket. What’s the correct action to get it from the list and to the box? A lot of times it's just a confirmation and knowing that your action has been done.”

Hope Paulos, a teacher of the blind and visually impaired at the Carroll Center, also encounters many of the issues described by Dr. Giudice. As a blind person herself with extensive experience as a digital accessibility evaluator, her method of addressing these issues is to go straight to the source:

"Show and Tell.

I just show [the developers] what I know. I’ll tell them that something is unactionable, or send them a video showing them that I can’t access this. They’ll say ‘Wow you know your stuff, can you provide any way to fix it?’ If I’m lucky I’ll give them the WCAG code snippets."

Hope Paulos

Teacher of the blind and visually impaired at the Carroll Center

Both Hope and Dr. Giudice do more than their fair share of advocating for digital accessibility. But what happens when website developers don’t listen? Dr. Giudice prefaced his answer with a warning: 

“I hate my answer, but I’ll give it to you. Partly it's just asking and educating. But what I’ve increasingly found is that it takes litigation... People just don’t change.”

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Dr. Chris Law, President of Accessibility Track Consulting, is no stranger to the legal guidelines regarding accessibility standards. Dr. Law has spent 25 years in the field of accessibility and has worked in a professional capacity on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He spreads awareness about accessibility standards by organizing events such as the Digital Accessibility Legal Summit and the ICT Accessibility Testing Symposium. He describes a major flaw in the legal approach towards accessibility: 

"The flaw in the law.

The law is going to say ‘You need to make your website accessible as a business owner.’ The law doesn’t say ‘The people that you recruit, or tools you employ, need to generate accessible code.’ The law is all about the end output, not the tools you need to use it."

Dr. Chris Law

President of Accessibility Track Consulting

While litigation is an option, it's an expensive and ugly route that can result in a damaged reputation for the accused. Unfortunately, the standards for what an online platform needs to provide are hazy, and whether or not a site is accessible often boils down to the actions of one person. 

“A designer should know the basics, like heading structures, alt-text, what a screen reader is, but the plain fact is that if a designer wants to make something accessible, and has the guidance and all the resources to make something accessible, if the manager or supervisor isn’t tasked with doing that then it won’t happen. The only real way is if the company itself says ‘We have users, users have disabilities, therefore anything we make for users needs to be accessible.’”

In the fight for inclusivity, roadblocks are inevitable - whether it be a poorly written legal requirement that provides little guidance to developers, or a manager who is so bogged down putting out other fires that accessibility never reaches the top of the to-do list. 

It can seem like a never-ending battle that can exhaust the spirits of inclusivity advocates. I asked Hope what companies with online platforms could do to make the biggest impact on the blind population:

"Make sure that you have a set of blind people and a set of people with other disabilities in your Beta program. It's really important to make sure if you’re a big organization, like Apple, like Google – to have people of differing abilities in your Beta program. They’re going to give you all of the bugs you’ll ever want to learn about and fix."

It falls on the advocate - often a person with disabilities - to be ready to vocalize their needs. But companies must be willing to listen, validate, and amplify these voices.

Dr. Giudice put it most succinctly:

"Be the squeaky wheel.

I think they need to hear that voice - you have to be that squeaky wheel. I don’t like being that person, but that’s the only way it’s going to get done… if no one says anything, it doesn’t get done."

Dr. Nicholas Giudice

Professor of Spatial Computing, School of Computing and Information Science, University of Maine