April 21, 2017:
In our blog A New Perspective, the Council of Europe’s new disability strategy was discussed because it marks a shift in focus from what isn’t possible to a focus on what is. Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe stated at the time of the launch: “Our focus must be on ability, not disability.”
It is particularly significant when you consider web accessibility issues. So much of the thinking here originates with the idea of compensating for what is lacking, that little thought is given to what is possible. For example, for someone who is blind and using the web, the developers’ thought process has always been: ‘We’ll just create a program that reads the text aloud.’ But for someone who is blind this does not offer a solution.
In an article for Nieman Reports, Elizabeth Campbell describes the annoying nature of ad pop-ups and banners when trying to read a news article. This is something that plagues every web user but the problem is particularly pronounced for someone who is blind. “I’ll be reading along and JAWS will start reading an ad right in the middle of a story,” says Campbell. “A sighted person would see the same thing, but you guys can skim over it and skip the ad, where we have to figure out how far to go down so we can get back to the story.”
The problem isn’t confined to adverts either. Badly designed sites don’t make it clear what is part of the text and what is page furniture or picture captions or a list of other stories. There are many sites that are paid to host links to stories on other sites and, aside from the headlines, there is little in the way of signposting that these aren’t part of the same article. For someone who isn’t blind it can be confusing enough, but for a program that is designed to read ALL of the text, it can cause the site to crash. Campbell is used to using an array of different read aloud programs, such as Apple’s VoiceOver software on her iPhone or Android’s Talkback or Microsoft Windows’ Narrator or a service from the National Federation of the Blind that reads news content, but they suffer a similar issue.
It just highlights the fact that the developers haven’t kept the accessibility programs up to date with how web pages now look and didn’t really consider the usability of the programs in the first place.
For Campbell it is annoying but it is a world away from the access issues she had 30 years ago. Still, it isn’t enough and she is calling for the US government to make ADA applicable online and to treat the internet as a public space designed to ensure access for all.
While some forward-thinking web developers are already testing accessibility features for websites that take into consideration a range of disabilities, what is also needed is a shift in thinking from the program developers that enhances what is possible rather than just compensating for what the user isn’t able to do. As the Council of Europe’s disability strategy proclaims, for blind or visually impaired web users, or those who are deaf or have motor or cognitive disabilities, it is not unreasonable to expect the advances in technology to provide a range of possibilities and innovative solutions that play to people’s strengths.
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