The Inaccessible Internet

The Inaccessible InternetIn 1989 Tim Berners-Lee created what is arguably the most impactful, world-changing invention ever – The Internet. In this world where we are surrounded by The Internet of Things, you can’t blink an eye without being influenced in some way by this brainchild of one of the world’s most intelligent human beings.

Berners-Lee is credited with many famous quotes in regard to the Internet. Here is one that inspires me every day when I fire up my computer and start working:

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.

That is a powerful statement, but what does it really mean? It means something that many of us don’t consider when we’re shopping online or researching something on the web. But let’s consider how most people use their device when performing the seemingly simple act of online shopping. If you’re on a regular computer, what do you use most to browse products, add them to your shopping cart and checkout?  Right you are – most people use their mouse to click through products, submit forms, activate links and buttons, and the ever-popular product zoom feature where you can hover over a product image and have it magnified for you so you can see the smaller details of the product.

But what if you can’t use a mouse? What if you have carpal tunnel syndrome or some other mobility impairment that forces you to use some other input device such as the keyboard or a switch device that you have to operate with your feet because you can’t move from the waist up? If you are using the Internet and you can’t see the screen, you most certainly are not going to be using a mouse!

“KDawg, are you saying that blind people surf the Internet??” Well first, they are not “blind people”. They are “people who are blind” or “people who have blindness”.  Secondly, yes, people who are blind use the Internet every day for the same things those who aren’t blind use it for: work, shopping, doing their taxes, ordering services and banking, to name a few things. How do they do it without being able to see the screen or use a mouse? They do it very well, thank you, by using a screen reader.

A screen reader announces the page content, form controls and everything else contained in digital media that uses a browser. Screen reader users can navigate pages in a wide variety of ways using the regular keyboard. They can use their Tab key to navigate active elements such as links, buttons and form controls. They can use what is called the virtual cursor (arrow keys) to navigate text content. The screen reader uses a digitized voice, and their engines work directly with the DOM (Document Object Model) and they use information that is available from the user agent (browser) and Accessibility API. Ok, that is not the highly technical explanation, but for our purposes it will suffice.

Refreshable Braille Device

Refreshable Braille Device

A screen reader is just one device in what adds up to literally hundreds and hundreds of products that fall within the category of Assistive Technology. Assistive technology allows computer users to access digital media regardless of what their disability is. Users who have low vision or other vision impairments may use a screen magnifier to consume content on the web. Some use varying high color contrast settings to be able to see what’s on the screen. For someone who is completely immobilized, sip and puff devices are used where the user inhales and exhales into a tube that is mapped to various functions. Some with mobility issues use speech recognition software to operate their computers hands-free. There are hundreds of different devices and software applications available, and many of these devices are designed to mimic the input of the keyboard. Another thing to keep in mind is that we have to also accommodate for users with cognitive disabilities also. It’s not only about physical disabilities.

And that’s the problem with the Internet. It’s that simple, folks. Most websites are designed to be used with the mouse. Ask me how I know? Because I audit websites for a living to make sure they can be used by those with a disability. I use the same products on these websites that people with disabilities use. I report my findings to the client and then I educate the web developers on how to write their code correctly so their website can be used by anyone regardless of ability. For millions of people around the globe, the Internet is inaccessible. What Tim Berners-Lee envisioned for his masterpiece has not come true and will not be anytime soon.

If you think you don’t need to care about this, you might want to think again. One important fact is that people are living longer, and statistics show that well over half of us will acquire some sort of disability in our lifetime. The type of disability is a varied as the world population. The disability can be something as simple as needing to wear reading glasses to something more impactful, such as blindness or being paralyzed. Temporary disabilities such as broken limbs can occur at any time. Let’s not forget that the baby boomers are reaching retirement age, so we are facing a large population in the United States alone that will benefit from some form of assistive technology at some point.

Ok, I have covered the what, now here comes the why.

Berners-Lee did not start with a flawed concept. In the beginning of the Internet, HTML was used to convey digital content. By default, HTML is a completely accessible language for the web when it is coded correctly.  There is no easier web development language to learn and write than HTML. Trust me, I know this after spending nearly twenty years as a web developer.

I am not going to go into detail, but for the sake of simplicity: web browsers are designed to interpret program code and from that code they create the DOM. Some browsers use an Accessibility API, where all attributes of any given element on a web page are stored. These attributes are the DNA of the element, such as its name, value, role, and state. For example, an element name can be “Yes”, its value can be “1”, its role can be “checkbox” and its state can be “checked” or “unchecked”. In order for each element of a website to be accessible, these properties for each element MUST be made available to all assistive technology so when users who use, for example, a screen reader encounter these elements, the screen reader can announce the name, value (when applicable), role and state of the element so the user is aware of what it is and how to use it. If this information is not made available, the element is considered inaccessible. And yes, the element must be able to be used with the keyboard.

The cause of this worldwide problem rests in the hands of many of those involved in the development of websites and it starts at the very top of a company and goes all the way down to the last person in the chain. The first problem is that those who design websites don’t think good old HTML is stylish enough for the modern-day consumer. The people involved in this process can be product owners, the marketing department, and UX (user experience) designers who believe they know better than you do how you like web content styled and how you interact with things on a web page. The very beginning of the killing of web content from an accessibility standpoint begins when designers (or sometimes developers) choose to use semantically neutral elements to create things used on a web page instead of using HTML. These elements are typically known as “widgets”.

The root of web inaccessibilityWhy is this such a big deal? Remember what I wrote earlier about name, role, value and state information? Native HTML controls expose all of that by default. But when you use what are referred to as semantically neutral elements to create controls, the name, value, role and state information is NOT automatically provided. That means assistive technology cannot convey the correct information to users, in turn making the website inaccessible.

Luckily, there is a way for developers to make these types of elements accessible, but most of them aren’t aware of it. it’s called WAI-ARIA, which stands for Web Accessibility Initiative Accessible Rich Internet Applications (“ARIA for short”). ARIA is not a programming language. It is a series of attributes, roles and other things that are assigned to semantically neutral elements so all of the necessary information about the element is made available to assistive technology. Information about using ARIA correctly is available from the W3C (Worldwide Web Consortium). It is completely documented, but most developers don’t know of it existence.

Ok, there is one problem with one solution. Now the second part of the problem: Web developers who land developer jobs who don’t have the basic, fundamental knowledge of how to write properly structured code. Oh yes, I’ve seen this a million times and I could do hours and hours worth of standup comedy based on some of the code I have encountered.  When I was a web developer I seriously thought that myself and others who did what I did for a living were grossly overpaid. We have kids coming out of high school and college now who think they know the slickest way of writing code but most of them don’t have the slightest clue about proper page structure. And you know what? There are no accessibility courses available to developers while they’re in school.

That’s partly why I travel all over the country and open their eyes to how they’re ruining the web. First I smack them in the head and then I show them how to make their websites accessible. These overpaid code jockeys leave my trainings with a new understanding. Many feel enlightened and empowered, some feel shame and embarrassment, and some leave more confused than when they first walked in the door for the training. The latter types should find a new line of work. Quickly.

Still not convinced you should care about accessibility on the Internet? You know, there are always people and corporations that are motivated only by revenue. Ok, time for the legal side of this issue…

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a civil rights law that, in a nutshell, prohibits discrimination based on disability. In 1998 Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require electronic and information technology procured by the federal government, including computer hardware and software, websites, phone systems, and copiers to be accessible to those with a disability. Section 508 of this legislation establishes certain guidelines that must be met for a website to be considered accessible.  Not long ago the WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) guidelines were created. These requirements filled in the gaps where the Section 508 guidelines began to fail because Section 508 was unable to keep up with the ever changing technology on the web.

To be considered Section 508 compliant is no longer considered to be good enough. The standards are changing where WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliance is becoming the standard, and the WCAG Level AA guidelines will be made the new law in the United States once the process has completed the many steps and milestones necessary as it is batted around by our government. The WCAG 2.0 Level AA standard is currently law in many countries.

Here’s where the money issue factors in. Title II and Title III of the ADA address public entities and public accommodation. The Department of Justice is now actively pursuing companies that run inaccessible websites. This function can fall under both Titles, but I’ll specifically address Title III, which states:

No individual may be discriminated against on the basis of disability with regards to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation.

Guess what? Websites are considered a “place of public accommodation”! Now the accessibility requirements are no longer just for IT procured by the Federal Government. It applies to any company with a web presence. So, what’s been going on? The DOJ has been going after some pretty well-known businesses because complaints are being filed against them. Some of the names of these companies are available on the public record, some are not because of settlement agreements. But I can tell you that if Target can be fined a ton of money AND have to pay large sums of money to fix their website, then everyone is running at a high risk. A lot of the work I do now is because of legal action or potential/pending legal action.

Think it can’t happen to you? Think again. You would be shocked at the names of the websites I have audited that are completely unusable by those with a disability. And I am talking about big corporate names to small businesses. It’s not pretty, and the DOJ is having a field day with these cases. It’s expensive for everyone involved, and it can have serious repercussions to the branding these companies have spent billions of dollars on to get their name into your head and want to do business with them.

I have worked alongside people with disabilities. What got me so passionate about those with a disability being able to have an equal experience was watching the frustration on someone’s face when they couldn’t do the most simple, basic things on a website because the developer defined a button as a semantically neutral element instead of using a BUTTON. I fight each and every day alongside those with disabilities, in the trenches. I think that what I do for a living makes a positive difference in the lives of millions of people. I don’t want a thank-you from them. All I want is for companies and web developers to change their attitude and think of things from a more inclusive perspective.

Why in the world a company that is in business to make money would make their goods and services unavailable to millions of people worldwide that have billions of dollars in combined disposable income is beyond any rational thought pattern. Some of these companies just are not aware of accessibility. Some companies actually battle against accessibility. Want to try an easy test to gauge the accessibility of any website? Here’s an easy way to do it:

Go to any website and put your mouse aside. Try to use the website with only your keyboard. Navigate it with your Tab key. Can you see where you are at all times? Can you operate every button, link, combobox, every active element, with the keyboard? Does everything on the website work the same way with the keyboard as it does with the mouse?

There aren’t many websites that are fully accessible. Considering the number of websites on the web, the percentage of accessible sites is shockingly low. There are some web development companies that produce modules used on virtually every online retail website and most of these components are not accessible. Companies like these are helping to spread the web inaccessibility problem. Many of these companies you’d know by name. Many of the development platforms being widely used today are not completely accessible, furthering the source of the problem.

Even the platform I use to write this blog with isn’t completely accessible in its default state. In order to make some elements fully accessible I have to use a template that costs money instead of using a standard, free template.

Maybe someday Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the Internet will become a reality. But for today, it is still just a dream. It’s time for the Internet community to wake up and make that dream a reality.

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