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Resources: UPA 2005 Idea Markets

What is the State of Accessibility and Universal Design on the Web?

Activators: Ann Chadwick-Dias, Marguerite Bergel, Fidelity Investments


The emergence of the Web as a primary method of electronic commerce is changing both attitudes and requirements regarding universal access issues for many companies. While Section 508 compliance addresses some accessibility issues, it does not necessarily meet the wide range of user requirements. During this session, we discussed how or whether accessibility and universal design practices are changing within companies that do business on the Web.

Posted Questions:

Question #1: Is it possible to make one site accessible for all people?
Question #2: How does your organization view usability and accessibility?
Question #3: How has your organization shifted its approach toward meeting the needs of everyone?

Executive Summary

Most agreed that accessibility issues are gaining a higher degree of visibility within corporations because of changing laws (U.S. and international); however, it is difficult to integrate new practices into any company’s corporate culture. While most companies have at least minimal resources committed to accessibility, often incorporating accessibility checklists into the QA cycle, this is often not enough to appropriately make products as accessible as they should be. For most companies, usability and accessibility are two different departments that have rather limited interaction. Accessibility is often viewed as something that is mandated while usability is optional. However, usability seems to have a stronger foothold in the companies of those we spoke with.
We explored 3 primary questions during our idea market. Participant comments are included.

Question #1: Is it possible to make one site accessible for all people?

Overall consensus: Possibly, but there is no simple way to provide a totally equitable experience for users across all abilities.

  • It is difficult to achieve accessibility for everyone equally for a site with a large audience.
    • This is especially true if domain knowledge (e.g. financial expertise) factors in to users’ ability to navigate a site. How does one account for that in financial services site with a broad audience.
  • It’s very hard to accommodate the needs of all groups simultaneously. For instance, it’s relatively easy to develop sites for blind users via compliant HTML code, but it’s much harder to design for low-vision users who require multiple magnification levels, color display options, etc.
  • There are trade-offs to making things accessible vs. usable. Differing needs can conflict and following best practices may not benefit all equally.
    • Taking steps to meet the needs of one group may conflict with another. For example, if you include additional descriptions and fields in a form to orient a blind user, it may tax someone who is motor-impaired by requiring them to tab through this additional material when economy of movement is preferable.
    • It’s a balancing act. E.g. learning disabled want more pictures where blind may not.
    • One person said she thought designing for low vision was toughest to address – because there is such a wide range of things they need on a site and because those can conflict with the needs of fully sighted users.
  • Designing for everyone requires different types of expertise which takes time to develop.
    • Coding a site to meets needs of blind users is one thing. Knowing how to develop sites for motor-, hearing-, or cognitively- impaired is another.
    • One person said you have to know your audience and optimize for them. He is responsible for a site that services the blind community and felt it made sense to tailor the site to meet their requirements.
  • One person said one site could fit all, but qualified that multiple browsers and different native languages preclude anyone’s ability to reach total equality across the many ways in which a site is viewed.
  • Assistive technology is improving at a rapid rate. This will help to level the playing field.
  • Both code and content have to be accessible. Developers aren’t always content-owners, or may not have sway over those who are. “You try telling the government not to use difficult language (for the learning disabled)!” Making site content accessible in other languages is also an issue.
  • CSS can’t do everything (e.g. adjust radio buttons to dropdowns for blind/low vision people that are easier to use.)
  • Often about the bottom line. Getting bad press is a great motivator to take steps toward accessibility. So is competing for contracts, etc.
  • Making rich media fully accessible is challenging. Dynamic content is very difficult to deal with, for instance.
    • Rich media often involves multiple modalities (audio, video, etc.). The more modalities involved, the more difficult it is to channel everything through one communication medium, like text.

Question #2: How does your organization view usability and accessibility?

Overall consensus: It depends.

  • Tough!
  • Sometimes in conflict.
  • Accessibility is enforceable, usability is not.
  • Maintaining accessibility of emerging products can be a challenge.
  • Having a good accessibility advocate is important.
  • Two people said their companies include an accessibility checklist in their QA cycle.
    • An employee of a company that develops library products said usability is generally included within a product’s development cycle, but accessibility is mandated so they treat areas of inaccessibility in their products as bugs.
    • A usability professional from Canada said that now that accessibility is mandated at the Federal level (and Canada also has provincial- and municipal- level mandates) it is easy to include a checklist in the QA cycle and report inaccessible areas of a site as bugs.
  • One employee of a company that provides technical support for customers who use their products with assistive technology said it was a band-aid approach because it did not proactively log issues or communicate feedback about the product to those who needed to hear it.
  • We actually never say explicitly “we’re 508 compliant”. In stead, we issue statements about our commitment to making our products usable for all, etc.
  • We used to have them as two separate groups. Then they were moved into the same division. Now we’re all being merged into the same group and we’re struggling with different cultures. We both have different processes and audience.
  • Are they related? Yes and no. Usability and accessibility are dealt with in different teams but related.
  • One person thought accessibility was poised to factor earlier into their company’s design cycle…
  • One person said that after a while, it isn’t necessary to do as much user interviewing/contextual inquiry with disabled users each time we develop a product or site. We can now build on the wealth of knowledge and guidelines already available (as we do when developing for sighted users).

Question #3: How has your organization shifted its approach toward meeting the needs of everyone?

Overall consensus: Some have noticed a gradual shift in attention to accessibility considerations.

  • Someone who often works with the government on projects described that they sometimes get interested in a new project early on, but may not push for accessibility until after the product has been developed - not at the optimal time!
  • Someone said that Section 508 in the U.S. heightened awareness regarding accessibility. His company began to more seriously consider accessibility issues and hired an outside consultant to inform their development process
  • Someone said that as accessibility issues impact the company’s potential profits, more attention will be given to them.
  • Some believe that US lawsuits may drive accessibility practices in the U.S.
  • Several said their companies had either hired consultants, or assigned employees to champion for accessibility.

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