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What is Assistive Technology: An Intro to Web Accessibility for All

In 2016, it was recorded that approximately 25 percent of all U.S. adults – 61 million Americans – have a disability that affects major life activities. One of those activities is the ability to access digital content.

The world wide web as we know it has changed many aspects of our lives, including education, employment, commerce, and healthcare. We are in an age where new experiences and new horizons are just a few clicks away. But imagine losing these opportunities completely – the ability to make an online purchase, schedule an appointment, or simply find more information about a product or service. How do the millions of people with disabilities interact with technology?

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology (AT) is any device, software, or equipment used to maintain or enhance the functional capabilities of people with disabilities. Common tools include hearing aids, wheelchairs, voice-enabled software, and keyboard alternatives. In the context of this article, assistive technologies are the tools used to access digital information. Accessibility needs of web users are typically grouped into four areas:

  • Visual: This includes users with all forms of visual impairments. These users may have difficulty discerning specific colors from the background or rely on assistive technology such as screen readers and or screen magnifiers;
  • Auditory: Low hearing or deafness where individuals who are hard of hearing would have trouble with information presented without text including videos;
  • Motor/Mobility: Difficulty or inability to use hands, and loss or lack of excellent muscle control would be categorized under mobility considerations. This group of users may rely on voice recognition software or a mouse and keyboard alternative to navigate applications; and
  • Cognitive/Learning: Difficulties with memory, problem-solving, attention, reading, verbal, visual or math comprehension. The concept of a cognitive disability is not always well-defined. In essence, a person would have trouble with one or more kinds of mental tasks.

A user with any of these disabilities deserves equal access to digital content, but this requires inclusive web design, something not all companies consider when creating their content. When websites are more inclusively designed and developed, we remove the barriers people with a disability may face when using some type of AT. For example:

  • Screen readers: A text-to-speech software application that outputs the text displayed on screen to a user who is blind or visually impaired; 
  • Screen magnifiers: A software that enlarges text and graphics on a digital screen. Functions can also be used to customize font sizes, colors and text spacing;
  • Voice recognition: A speech-to-text based software that converts the users’ speech into digital text, which applications and browsers will then interpret into commands to perform specific actions; or
  • Writing and reading assistant: Software that is optimized for assisting the readings and writings of people with dyslexia, dysgraphia or other learning disabilities. This category of AT goes above and beyond that of a typical proofreading feature found on a word processing application. 

However, accessing information with the use of an AT requires that the website be developed to properly to support the use of that technology. The technology itself will not make all online content accessible. A great starting point for organizations to make their sites accessible is to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

What is WCAG?

WCAG has grown to be accepted as the global standard in digital accessibility guidelines. It enables all organizations to measure the accessibility of content, sites and applications against documented success criteria for all people, including those with disabilities. Here are the four main WCAG principles for creating accessible web content:

1. Perceivable

Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways that they can perceive. This means that users must be able to perceive the information that is presented (it can’t be invisible to all of their senses).

2. Operable

Components and navigation of the user interface must be operable, meaning that users must be able to operate the interface (the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform).

3. Understandable

Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable. This means that users must be able to understand the information as well as the process of the user interface (the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding).

4. Robust

Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies, which means that users must be able to access the content as technologies advance (as technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible).

Conformance Requirements

How do you know if content satisfies the standard? WCAG 2.0 specifications have a conformance requirement page explaining the following five elements required of an accessible website:

  1. Conformance Level: One of the following levels of conformance is met in full. 
  2. The complete web page(s) must comply with accessibility standards and cannot be achieved if part of a web page is excluded.
  3. When a web page is part of a series of web pages presenting a process, all web pages must maintain conformance from start to finish.
  4. Accessibility must be achieved by the use of supported technologies as defined by the W3C.
  5. Technologies that are not fully accessible can be used as long as the content is still accessible with an alternative or different technology (e.g., a video with a text transcription).

W3C specifies that a web page must meet these requirements to satisfy accessibility conditions. There are also exceptions where a site can pass a conformance evaluation with just a level A conformance rating. However, federal laws require some websites to meet a minimum of level AA or AAA conformance. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, if you are a business that exists to benefit the public, a state or local government, or a private employer with 15 or more employees, you should be compliant with the ADA regulations.  For all other organizations, the law, as it stands, is a little bit unclear, so to be sure to avoid a potential lawsuit, it’s best for all commercial websites to meet these regulations.

What can you do to support Web Accessibility?

Web accessibility should not be viewed as a one-time project. Instead, accessibility is an ongoing process. It’s an all-hands on deck initiative, requiring input and contribution from every team member in your organization. Listed below is a basic outline of how you or your team can embrace accessibility:

  • Understand the current state of your website or applications level of accessibility;
  • Conduct routine accessibility audits and identify accessibility issues that do not comply with the latest version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) (Currently version 2.1 as of June 5, 2018);
  • Ensure your website, application and content support assistive technologies; 
  • Have a plan of action for your organization to be more inclusive in all roles and operations. Every role should understand the fundamentals of accessibility and the methods to take for their specific work; and
  • Include web accessibility from the beginning as part of your initial development process.

One thing is consistent, by following WCAG accessibility standards and supporting assistive technology, we can ensure a more accessible, usable and inclusive web experience for everyone. AudioEye is committed to providing equal access to digital content. If you’d like to learn more about how AudioEye can work with you to review, design and implement digital services that are accessible to all users, please contact anAudioEye representative today.

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