Making Software Accessible to All: Interview with an Expert

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Highlighting Differences with National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM)

Although Keats’s personal experience made him more aware of disabilities, not everyone has that experience, which is why the US Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) sponsors National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).

Held in October each year, NDEAM is a month-long celebration and commemoration of the contributions disabled citizens have made to the American workplace and economy.

The theme for NDEAM 2021 is “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion,” and it focuses on encouraging employers and the general public to ensure those with disabilities have full access to employment and community during the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

ODEP encourages everyone to participate in NDEAM and has specific action plans for employers, educators, politicians, legislators, associations, unions, disability organizations, and federal agencies. In fact, they have put together a “31 days of NDEAM” calendar with activities for every day of the month. Activities include hanging posters, educating employees, training supervisors, subscribing to ODEP newsletters, talking to the local media, fostering inclusive internship programs, and learning about workforce recruitment programs.

Everyone can participate in NDEAM regardless of where they work, their status at work, and if they have any disabilities or not. Together, the visibility around how to include disabled individuals at work will benefit everyone.

How Can We Make Software More Accessible?

Making software more accessible requires paying thought to what others might take for granted. It requires seeing from a different point of view. Going back to the hypothetical high-tech library that doesn’t include a wheelchair ramp: the problem isn’t the cost of a ramp but rather the lack of its consideration.

“One thing I learned after my accident was how much the browser experience back then depended on mouse manipulation,” Keats says. “If one could not use a mouse, then many sites did not work. Sadly, that is still far too true.”

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, access to information and communication technologies, including the web, is a fundamental human right. Major companies like Google and Wells Fargo are stepping up and dedicating teams of software engineers to ensure that their services are widely accessible. This is no small task, and it affects more people in more ways than one might first think.

“Between 20 and 25 percent of the US population has some form of accessibility issue, ranging from the type of that is more visible, i.e., someone who is deaf or blind, to the more mundane, but nonetheless important, ideas of faulty memory or needing larger print sizes,” Keats says.

When Keats first took on his current role as a web accessibility consultant, he spent a good amount of time fixing accessibility issues present in already-developed code. Then he standardized CSS code, converted previously-created code to semantic code (and, in the process, rewrote certain functionalities), and took other steps to make the code more accessible to not only disabled users but also all users.

“On my team, I am the only person who deals with accessibility full-time,” Keats says.

What Does a Web Accessibility Consultant Do?

Keats’ day is generally similar to any other web developer on the team, except that he coordinates a little more with UX/UI, content, and specialized testing groups than others do. His duties include not only accessibility itself but also CSS and flow structures.

His current projects are built using the Angular 8 JavaScript framework with a Java backend. He rates his work against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 and is working to make everything comply with 2.1 and future standards moving forward. Ensuring that code remains accessible is an ongoing process.

“When I arrived, accessibility was not always thought of in the initial design, but it has now become central to operations,” Keats says. “I have recommended various changes that have been incorporated into wireframes and successive UX/UI designs. Going forward, I will be brought into the decision stages at an earlier point, which should help to avoid having to rethink designs after they are already formulated.”

What Are the Main Considerations for Equitable Software Access?

Accessibility can take many different forms. It can be alternative text for images, keyboard input in addition to mouse input, or transcripts for audio files. These aren’t impossible fixes. They’re basic features of inclusive design.

“Try going a day without using a mouse or keyboard,” Keats says. “Try closing your eyes and using audio tools like VoiceOver to navigate around a computer or website. It is not easy. Try to put yourself into the shoes of someone with memory issues or color blindness. Why? Because a person gains a far better understanding of the issues at hand if one has at least in part experienced the inconvenience.”

To Keats, an example of good inclusive design in the physical, built environment is the cut in the curb that occurs when a sidewalk meets a corner or an entrance. These curbs help a person in a wheelchair, but they also help a parent pushing a stroller or a traveler pulling a suitcase.

Similarly, alternate text for images can be helpful to people in poor, low-bandwidth areas. An aria-label and title attribute can help someone with a faulty memory remember what an acronym means. Inclusive design means considering the edge cases and making things accessible so that they work for everyone.

“I foresee a bright future for accessibility,” Keats says. “As commerce shifts ever more online, the need to build applications for everyone will become more evident.”

The growth of e-commerce is just one side effect of a society that is moving increasingly online. As our population ages, accessibility issues will affect an increasingly larger number of people every year. A migration towards telehealth and health IoT makes digital accessibility an issue of physical health.

Tech has to work for everyone. And, with enough software engineers and accessibility consultants, one day it might.

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