Getting More People to Care More About Web Accessibility

After the first day of Accessibility Camp Seattle 2013, I left thinking about the emphasis placed on web accessibility—the lack there of, that is—by the web industry and even average web users. It’s a multifaceted problem in need of a multifaceted solution, so I’ve come up with a list of things—complementary and overlapping—that I think could contribute to improving the state of the accessible web.

The “ROI” Argument

“ROI” stands for “Return On Investment.” This is a classic reason cited for why accessibility is important. As the theory goes, a website that more people can use expands the base of potential customers. More customers = more money. There’s even a document from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)—the organization that writes specifications for the web—with examples of how to make this argument!

I find it rather cold and capitalistic, but I can imagine certain high-level managers at large companies responding to it. I’d urge people to use the point with caution but keep it in their back pocket nonetheless.

Brag About It

Web accessibility is cool. An accessible website works for more people on more devices in more contexts. I see no reason why people shouldn’t brag a bit about how “my website works for more people than yours.” If an accessible website is a badge of honor—even if it might require more effort—more people will do it.

Educate & Integrate

Many blog posts on this site focus on or mention web accessibility. I also try to bring it into my WordPress trainings, ask about it at conferences, and plug it at meetups. If we want an entirely accessible web—and that should be the goal—then it requires the participation of nearly everyone who uses the internet. Some of that participation may be subconscious or unknowing (see the upcoming “UI/UX” section below), but much of it should intentional and valued.

Making web accessibility intentional and valued means bringing web accessibility’s importance and techniques up more often in more situations. Ignorance is not an excuse, but it can be an impediment, and better outreach and education can help spread the knowledge of web accessibility.

Evangelization & Corporate Support

Lots of companies have “evangelists” ((I found an interesting article about a few people’s reactions to the term “accessibility evangelist.” While I’m familiar with this meaning of “evangelist”—it’s common in the tech world—I could see the need for a new term to avoid any confusion between those who favor well-written alternative text and those cranky zealots on TV.)) who dole out free advice, support, and encouragement around a certain technology. Microsoft has had multiple people in the role specifically trying to win back favor for Internet Explorer. In the world of WordPress, certain companies have people on their payroll who do little for the company beyond supporting WordPress open source development.

So large companies like Google and Microsoft should hire “accessibility evangelists.” ((Or at least more of them with better visibility. After a bit of research, I found that MicrosoftOracle, and Yahoo! Europe all have people with this job title, but that’s news to me. I’d love to see these people have the visibility of Paul Irish for Google Chrome or Helen Hou Sandi for WordPress.)) These people could help their colleagues make the companies’ own products more accessible, but their primary role would be to promote, educate, and build things to make the web more accessible. If bragging is the “grassroots” strategy to make web accessibility cool, this is the top-down model. There’s easily room for both.

WordPress Should Have an Accessibility Evangelist

Matt Mullenweg, WordPress’s co-founder, explicitly and repeatedly says:

the mission of the WordPress open source project [is] to democratize publishing…

Democracy requires access by all, so I think it’s time for Automattic, WordPress.com’s parent company, to put its money where its mouth is by hiring an accessibility evangelist to make the WordPress software more accessible and the WordPress community more involved in web accessibility as a whole.

UI/UX

Design is a powerful thing. A well-crafted “user interface” (UI) or “user experience” (UX) can drastically change the behavior of someone using a product. For example, the equivalent of a checked-vs.-unchecked checkbox can determine whether a country’s organ donation rate is 4% or 100%.

Some Alternative Text Examples

Alternative text is a plain-text representation of visual information, frequently images or videos. You can read up on it in some of my previous posts like “It’s ALT Good” and “The Alt Text Decision Tree.” Here are two examples of how UI changes could improve web accessibility.

WordPress

I’ve long thought that “alt text ” be required in WordPress. ((Technically there would be an opt-out mechanism but it would need to be as time-consuming to use as filling in good alt text.)) New estimates suggest that 20% of all sites on the internet run on WordPress, so a small change like this could mean a huge uptick in the amount of proper alternative text on the web. (WordPress would also do well to really cut-down on people’s ability to add the “title” attribute to links, images, and menu items.)

Cat Memes on Facebook

The [in]famous "I Can Haz Cheezburger?" Happy Cat.
The [in]famous “I Can Haz Cheezburger?” Happy Cat.
Alternatively, consider the thousands of internet memes that are text embedded in an image. There are whole websites devoted to them and they pop up on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and really any screen with an internet connection. For screen reader users—two of whom confirmed this problem to me at Accessibility Camp this year—a majority of those jokes are slightly less funny because they all have the same punchline: “Graphic.” (Not even “I can haz graphic!”) That’s what a screen reader says when there’s no alternative text. So how could Facebook fix this? I can think of two ways:

  1. Scan images for text and suggest users add the text of the image to the post. Every time someone uploads an image, Facebook pops up a little message: “It looks like there are words in your image. Describe your image or write the text in your post so more users can understand it.”
    • Facebook might instead use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to automatically read text in images and add it as alternative text, but I don’t know if the technology exists to do this with high-enough accuracy.
  2. Facebook could build a tool to make text-on-image memes. Such a tool would then have access to the real characters in the image and could automatically add the proper “alt” attribute to every image post it generated.

This Can Improve People’s Quality of Life

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that promoting accessibility was my big take-away from Accessibility Camp, but I didn’t say why. I spent much of the day talking with and learning from people who rely on or help others learn assistive technologies. At one point during a conversation, someone asked a question about why there wasn’t a greater focus on accessibility on the web. Two women who use screen readers immediately replied with the same thought: people don’t value accessibility and—reading into their tone of voice—don’t value people who rely on accessibility features.

So remember this when entering alternative text feels tedious or learning a new accessibility technology feels overwhelming. Making the web more accessible has a real impact on a large group of people. It’s everyone’s responsibility.

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