Digital Accessibility: A Process, Not a Product

Posted on September 18, 2019


This guest blog is by Evan Schoepke, Senior Business Development and Growth Manager with CityGrows. Connect with Evan on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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What I’m Reading: Radical Mycology by Peter McCoy

What I’m Listening to: Sapiens Podcast

It is all too common that civic websites fail to meet basic accessibility requirements and treat improvements as an afterthought, instead of a basic right. Advocates for a more accessible and equitable web have had their concerns ignored by both businesses and governments, which means people with visual or other limitations often struggle to get access to information and services. Instead of waiting for the slow pace of legislation they’ve resorted to direct litigation to get more attention and action on these issues. In 2018, lawsuits in federal courts related to website accessibility increased 117% to over 2250, and this year there will likely be even more! While governments have made strides to fix their accessibility shortfalls, there are still a number of overlooked areas that need addressing. Here are some recommendations that might prevent your community from facing challenges from disability advocates, and more importantly, help everyone in your community access services.

  1. Digital accessibility doesn’t have to be hard:

One of the biggest myths about accessibility is that it’s difficult. The common misunderstanding is that efforts to assess or improve accessibility are resource-intensive and require hiring specialized consultants in order to even know what to get right. This doesn’t have to be the case. There are a number of important website accessibility tests that you can quickly perform yourself that can be effective in giving your team a decent picture of what needs improvement. The very first step towards accessibility is simply empathy; awareness and action can follow.

  1. Governments need to get away from using PDFs for information gathering:

The PDF is a proprietary document format created by Adobe that came of age in the desktop publishing revolution of the 1990s and has remained useful for printing. But, governments today rely on PDFs extensively in areas where they shouldn’t, including information collection. This reliance puts an undue burden on both staff and constituents because ultimately the PDF is just the wrong tool for collecting information. While Adobe does provide tools to make PDFs more accessible, they are neither user-friendly or fast. It’s common for screen readers to struggle with PDFs that are properly formatted and offer no help at all when the PDF is a paper scan. Additionally, Fillable PDFs are a major pain to fill out on a cell phone and many governments still require constituents to print, fill out, and then send back PDFs, wasting everyone’s valuable time. Since few people own their own printers this circumstance brings up another digital equity issue. PDFs should be kept in the domain where they shine, which is formatting a document to be printed.  If you want to collect information, keep staff and constituents happy, and your services accessible use customizable HTML forms and automated workflow management tools.

  1. Contrast matters for a lot of users and it’s easy to correct:

For low vision users (10% of the US population) and colorblind users (4% of the US population) contrast is key, and the more contrast the better. This contrast can help give important contextual information but shouldn’t be used alone. Specific icons should be used in conjunction with color and pattern to help convey meaning for various user feedback signals (error messages, form acceptance, etc). Designing with contrast in mind is just good practice and also ends up benefiting on-the-go mobile users who often view content in a range of lighting conditions. When building your own web services or evaluating products, double-check those contrast levels!

  1. “State changes” require extra consideration:

One of the most common reasons fillable PDF forms fail on accessibility is when there are objects that can change states, including:

    • Accordion Controls
    • Radio Buttons
    • Check Boxes
    • Submit Buttons that don’t become active until all mandatory fields are entered
    • Expandable menus
    • Users using assistive technology such as screen readers require that these objects announce the name and value when the object is encountered and also when there is a change of state. Not clearly communicating when a state change has occurred makes a site harder to use for everyone. Careful consideration state changes can avoid this and here are some good rules of thumb:
    • For error messages, pair the explanatory with a thicker line (which helps the error stand out from the default field) and also clearly explain what the problem is and how to fix it.
    • Color should not be used alone to convey the state and should be paired with icons.
    • Use text cues if there is ambiguity about what has changed.

User research has come a long way in the last decade and governments have started to realize that digital accessibility is exactly as much of a fundamental right as physical accessibility. With the adoption of new technologies, accessibility requirements will continue to evolve. During all this disruption and change, it’s important to remember accessibility will always be a process and not a final product.

Evan Schoepke is a Senior Business Development and Growth manager with CityGrows and passionate advocate for digital innovation and accessibility within local government. Alongside his decade long experience working with innovative startups and clients, his academic background in permaculture, eco-city development and studio arts informs his passion for civic transformation. In his free time he enjoys, backpacking, bike riding, dancing, making art and gardening with friends.

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