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Accessibility Online: A Neglected Frontier for People With Disabilities

Evelyn Harford, Ottawa Citizen
Published on: May 20, 2016 | Last Updated: May 20, 2016 7:33 PM EDT

When we think accessibility, we usually think about doors that open automatically, or ramps that lead up to buildings.

But what about accessibility online?

Ottawa tech leaders say web development needs to catch up and improve online accessibility for people with disabilities.

“I think we have a long way to go,” says Mike Gifford, president of the web accessibility consultant company OpenConcept Consulting Inc. Gifford helped organize a11yYOW’s third annual Accessibility Camp Ottawa for techies to discuss online accessibility on Thursday.

“I think there are ways to accommodate all kinds of people (online),” he says. “The Internet should be accessible for everyone.”

With an increasing amount of our lives happening online, inaccessible websites prevent people with disabilities from fully engaging in society.

Malia Bender, 56, has been blind since she was 16. She uses a screen reader, which reads out on-screen text, to navigate the web. She often has difficulty when trying to change her address on government forms, or renewing a passport.

Despite some difficulties, Bender says online accessibility on government sites is far ahead of the private sector.

“There are several websites that I would like to go to for shopping and things like that that are totally inaccessible,” she says. “And these are not little companies, these are big companies like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.

“You should be able to order a pizza (online),” says Bender.

Many companies don’t implement accessible digital forms, because they’re very expensive, says Gifford.

“It could cost $50,000 to develop an accessible online PDF form,” he says.

“There are so many disabilities,” says Steve Buell, a retired technology specialist for persons with disabilities for the public service. He points to the people who might have an invisible disability like dyslexia.

A wide range of disabilities need to be in mind when designing accessible websites. A website could be described as “accessible,” but Buell says the question should be: Accessible to whom?

Often what is accessible to one person, might not be accessible to the next, he says.

While many public websites make clear attempts to create an accessible environment, they sometimes can fall short. Gifford said after using a freely available accessibility-testing tool that even the City of Ottawa’s site had accessibility flaws in the alternative text, a type of code that is used to describe images.

But, Gifford admits that it’s very hard to ensure a website is 100 per cent accessible at all times.

“It’s hard and takes a lot of vigilance,” he says. “But, it’s important that people are willing to learn how to improve the accessibility of their sites.”

“The City of Ottawa is aware that they need improvements,” says Gifford, who has worked on the accessibility of the city’s website in the past.

Nearly 60 people came out in support of online accessibility at Carleton University, Thursday including from the city.

The city says it adheres to the province’s web accessibility standards laid out by the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

But says Gifford; the challenge of the AODA is that currently there virtually no enforcement of the AODA’s web standard. And it’s this lack of enforcement that really holds online accessibility back.

Awareness, increased training, education and improvement of open source software is a crucial step to improve online accessibility for government and private sites, he says. Many sites will only improve accessibility if there are a number of complaints.

Some companies assume that people with disabilities are a really small, fringe community, when in fact they’re not, he says.

“They can make up 20 per cent of the population,” says Gifford.

Reproduced from