Technology & Accessibility

As the old cliché goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” This saying is as true for solutions related to disability as it is for any other ambition. With the necessity of technology in our daily lives, individuals with disabilities, and those who advocate for them have designed many tools that work for all, along with guidelines for how to harness its power. This concept is not a new one. In 1808, Pellegrino Turri invented the typewriter to help a friend to write legibly. In 1886, Herman Hollerith, who himself had a cognitive processing disability, invented a method to use punch cards to transport and manage data, later founding the company that would become IBM.

Today, there are many devices and programs designed to help people with disabilities tap into the power of technology. Computers and smartphones have built-in screen readers designed to work not only with the device’s primary applications, but also with an abundance of accessible apps as well. The Windows operating system includes the Narrator screen reader, Mac OS and iOS come packaged with Voiceover, and Google offers a screen reader called Talk Back for Android devices. There are uninstalled third party screen readers developed with specialized support for complex applications available to users. JAWS (Job Access with Speech) and NVDA (Nonvisual Desktop Access), both for Windows, offer scripting and plugin functionality so that they can work with certain applications. Magnification programs can enlarge content on the screen based on user preferences. Dictation software, whether built-in or installed separately, can allow the user to speak input or instructions, depending on the extent of the program’s integration with the operating system. Peripheral devices exist which will translate text on the screen into Braille and provide a keyboard for typing and control of a computer.

Technology is built with coding standards. Programs and content designed around these standards will provide an optimal experience for all users, and this is particularly the case for assistive technology. Following the standards and understanding the hardware and software parameters is the key to constructing an accessible website.

Screen readers are designed accessible to convey content with standard tags. A tag is an index term assigned to a piece of information, capturing knowledge about an information resource. Via these tags, screen readers automatically scan alternative text for an image when the user scrolls over it, giving a visually impaired user an idea of what the image shows. If pressing tab to move through some links, the title of each link will be spoken after the text of the link, assuming both are present.

When a user is navigating to or away from many different web elements, feedback is spoken or displayed by a screen reader. Lists, tables, articles, asides, block quotes and navigation menus are some of the more common elements where this occurs. A website that makes practical use of these structures will be more comprehensible to users of screen readers.

Some assistive technologies interpret only HTML web content and do not convey CSS styling. Newer screen readers and browsers, especially on touchscreen devices, do show CSS positioning. For older software and devices, or people who prefer the original browsing methods, this means that web content will be displayed and scrolled through in programmatic order, regardless of how a page has been visually laid out using CSS.  It is difficult for screen readers and other assistive devices to interact with content written in Flash.

Assistive programs and devices can access programmatic relationships between information and helps users navigate web pages quickly and find the information they are searching for faster. Many users do not scroll through every web page line by line, especially on large websites they are familiar with. Properly linking controls with labels, for instance, helps provide spoken feedback when tabbing through a form without having to read the entire page.

Text is easier for devices or specialized magnification software to resize if its size is set in relative measurements such as percentages or ems rather than absolutes such as pixels. The relative measurements make it simpler to add text size controls to a web page itself.

Assistive devices and people with many disability types struggle with overly animated web content. If elements of a page are always moving and changing, this makes it difficult for nonvisual methods of accessing content to maintain focus on the page. People with cognitive disabilities will also find it troublesome to keep track of flashy, animated content.

In addition to making content accessible, assistive technology often provides shortcuts and quick ways of performing certain tasks or navigating to some locations. While accessibility guidelines do not require catering to all of these, a website that lends itself to easy navigation will be pleasant to browse and earn brownie points from users with disabilities.

Some screen readers offer the ability to display a list of all links on a web page, allowing the user to jump to or activate the link he or she has selected. Links with descriptive and helpful text are easy to understand, but links that require surrounding context to understand, such as links that say “click here” make this technique ineffective.

Many assistive programs provide hotkeys or gestures that can be used to find certain types of elements on a page. On prominent Windows screen readers, a user can press the letter H to jump immediately to the next heading, provided there is one. These hotkeys make it easy to get an idea of what is on a webpage, so a user knows if it is a page they are interested in reading, and it allows the person to save time by quickly jumping to a control they know is on the page. Web elements can also have custom hotkeys, such as alt + 1 being set as the hotkey to bring a user to the login link.

Following standards and including useful, descriptive tags and attributes are great ways to make any website compatible with assistive technology. As the digital world continues to advance, more techniques for creating and conveying content are likely to emerge. If website design and assistive technology continue to keep current with standards and prevalent practices, the web should continue to play a role as an accessible resource for all.

Technology & Accessibility