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For the technology practitioner who works in the area of getting her solutions to work well for a diverse audience, there are a few related but often ambiguous terms that float around. Accessibility, usability, design …

For those of us who are particularly concerned about ensuring that web applications fit the needs of an audience with different faculties, there are a set of standards that are laid out that presumably will tell us how to do this. The question often comes up – is it worth the effort following standards like the W3C WCAG standard? There is a profusion of articles on the web that detail how standards compliance can be achieved and there are organizations who will help you, the web asset owner, get to standards compliance. What is often not that clear is the question of – what will WCAG compliance do for my users? How will my web asset benefit from this exercise? Does WCAG compliance mean that ALL users can use my web site ‘equitably’?

Focusing on the WCAG standard as an example, the standards body has stated that the goal of defining “how to make Web content more accessible to people with disabilities”. The standards body has decided, I believe consciously, to not precisely define accessibility. Also note the comparative term “more accessible” is chosen instead of a more absolute or superlative term. There is an air of tentativeness, which again, I would think, is a conscious choice.

There are a few more factors to consider:

  1. Standards, in its final form often represent less than the state of the art in technology due to the long life cycle of the standards process itself. This is also clear from the facts that often even as a particular standard is in the stages of approval, work on the next standards commences.
  2. Standards bodies often need to come up with a least common denominator in its specification and in the interest of expediency, generally have to choose to ignore complicated or controversial issues.
  3. Some of the issues related to accessibility, are so entwined in issues of usability and design, that it is difficult to make concrete standards without making assumptions about the nature of use of the system, the faculty set of the user and other environmental factors. In the continuum of accessibility-usability-design, the standards are only able to address the safe generalities than the highly variable specifics.

The points above should not be read as criticisms of standards, but merely as an observation of the facts.

Now, switching over to the practice side, take the classic cases where a web or digital asset owner takes the steps towards ensuring diversity. She is often driven by one or more of the following:

  • Social and values based reasons– CSR for companies, social pressure for individuals
  • I care about diversity, and want to make sure that there are no barriers in my organization for people with a non-standard set of faculties
  • I have a digital asset and want to come across to others as someone who cares about diversity
  • Regulatory and Legal
  • I need to comply to the accessibility rules/regulations/laws of my country/state/association in relation to and if I don’t there is a possible negative consequence
  • Commercial
  • I or one of my customers have or will have an audience or customers that is diverse and needs accessibility
  • I or one of my customers need to show some others that we are accessible so that we can get some new business
  • I or one of my customers deal exclusively with a segment that have a non-standard set of faculties that have accessibility implications and our offering needs to be precisely tailored for them

Consider the various cases above. While clearly not an exhaustive treatment of all possible cases, you can see 2 significant flavors:

  1. I need to convince a certain constituency that my digital asset is accessible
  2. I need to make my digital asset as accessible, usable and appropriate as possible to one or more specific class of users with non-standards faculties.

In both these cases, standards compliance is a requirement. For case 2 above, however, the asset owner would be ill-advised to stop at standards compliance and should consider additional steps to put forth the best possible offering – from accessibility, usability and design standpoints for the specific audience(s) in mind.

So here goes the stake in the ground:

We believe that standards compliance is a necessary but not sufficient condition for ensuring best possible levels of accessibility.

We do believe that current standards ensure a high degree of accessibility. However, we believe that there are additional steps that can and should be taken to allow a person with a non-standard set of faculties the best possible experience with a web site or application.

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Ever wondered how a person with a visual impairment uses a computer? Surf the web? Read a book or an article? I know many people who shy away from asking these questions. The important thing is to realise that there’s no harm in asking these questions. The real harm is in not bothering to find the answers to these questions. A request to our visually impaired readers: please pass this article on to all your sighted friends. And dear sighted readers, walk with me through this simple simulation of the experience of a visually impaired person.

The most popular, specialized software program used by people with visual impairments to consume electronic content – documents, web pages and other computer programs is a type of computer software known as a screen reader. The screen reader has two major functions – Navigation and Text-to-Speech (TTS).

A screen reader aids in navigation by guiding the user in moving from one page to the other, from one paragraph to the other and so on. It aids in TTS by converting electronic text to sound – basically it reads out text. The biggest stumbling block for screen reader software are programs and content that is difficult for navigation.
 
A large majority of computer programs and electronic content that are used by the visually impaired, are created by sighted people – programmers, content writers, editors etc. If you happen to fall into this category of very powerful people, and if you are unfamiliar with screen readers, I would definitely encourage you to try this little experiment. Now, if you don’t, you might still want to do it – because it can open your eyes a little bit into an unfamiliar world. All you need is a computer, working eyes and an old newspaper.

Here you go:

  1. Turn on your computer
  2. Browse to Google news or your favorite online haunt OR open a large word document
  3. Now get an old newspaper – take one full sheet and open it up
  4. Make a rectangular incision 3 inches long and half inch wide at the center of the paper
  5. With both hands, hold this newspaper against and in front of your computer display, so that you can see the screen through the rectangular hole
  6. Now start reading through the hole. Move the paper to the right to continue reading
  7. Try to jump to sections that you are interested in by moving the paper around
  8. Read the whole page
  9. Rinse and repeat with familiar and unfamiliar pages
  10. That’s it.

Hope you enjoyed the experience 🙂 .. Now we need some feedback from you:

  1. How easy was it to find something that you are looking to read?
  2. What would have made it easier to find what you were looking for?
  3. Is the experience different between familiar and unfamiliar pages?
  4. How would you change the design of your document/site/application after your experience of carrying out this experiment?

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