Bridging the gap

By Charlii Parker on 13 August 2020 Go comment! about Bridging the gap

In his key note speech at the Second International World Wide Web Conference in Chicago in 1994, Sir Tim Berners-Lee stated "The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."

This is probably the most referenced quote in any digital accessibility article, presentation, seminar or conference. Because it is absolute proof and confirmation that the man who invented the World Wide Web intended for it to be accessible to all.

It has now been three decades since the Web was invented and 26 years since Berners-Lee was quoted, yet the goal of making digital content accessible to all, seems to be as elusive as ever.

In 2008-2009 WebAIM undertook it's very first Screen Reader User Survey to get an understanding of how screen reader users access the web, their preferences, proficiencies and overall satisfaction. In 2013 and in each survey thereafter they asked, "In general, which of the following best describes your feelings regarding the accessibility of web content over the previous year?"

You would assume that with all of the work and effort that has gone into creating guidelines such as the WCAG, elements and attributes including WAI-ARIA, education and even the natural evolution of technology, the gap in the digital divide would be closing and digital content would now be accessible to most users.

The statistics tell another story entirely:

Bar graph comparing the progress of web accessibility over consecutive WebAim Screen Reader Surveys. Long Description follows.


Analysis of accessibility progress collated from WebAim surveys
Year More Accessible No Change Less Accessible 
2009 46.3 33.3 20.4
2010 37.2 42.3 20.5
2012 35.2 39.6 25.2
2014 36.7 41.5 21.8
2015 38.7 37.7 23.6
2017 40.8 40.4 18.8
2019 40.0 41.6 18.4

Since the first survey was taken respondents have seen a decline in the accessibility of web content. With the numbers only starting to creep back up in the final three reviews.

As an Accessibility Consultant whose job it is to find inaccessible content within websites and applications, you would think I would be rejoicing at this. With the way things are heading, I will never have to worry about employment. No matter what, I will always be inundated with work.

But that is not why I do this work.

I do what I do, so that all people, including those who require assistive technology or adaptive strategies can have the same access to all of the information and opportunities that the Web provides.

So where is it going wrong?

There are a number of factors that come into play.

I don't think that anybody is maliciously going around building inaccessible code to lock people out of accessing content. Neither do I think that people just don't care.

Web accessibility is a complex subject and although it has been around since the dawn of the Web, much of it is still not understood.

I was working for the Australian Public Service (APS) in 2010 when the National Transition Strategy (NTS) was introduced. The NTS mandated that all federal, state and local government website content be compliant with WCAG 2.0 Level A by December 2012, and WCAG 2.0 Level AA standard by December 2014.

This was an excellent initiative, in theory. However, in reality there were many hurdles and barriers to its implementation.

There was no road map, just a mandate with a deadline 2-4 years in the future. It is very hard to get to a final destination without any guidance or path to follow. Especially when there is no real sense of urgency in when you need to get there.

There was also lack of understanding of accessibility, what it meant, how it was achieved or even if people with disability actually used computers and IF they did, How?

So when December 2012 was looming it was panic stations, secondments were initiated, teams were assembled and there was a rush on to meet these requirements.

At the time of writing this article (August, 2020) I completed a quick test of 4 Government websites and none met WCAG 2.0 Level AA standard.

These are the main culprits:

  • Missing alternative text
  • Missing form labels
  • Empty buttons
  • Empty Links 
  • Contrast errors

This isn't an exercise in naming and shaming, it is just to highlight that while the intention and the objective is there, we are somehow missing the pieces that bridge the gap. The majority of the failures listed above are WCAG Level A.

Level A is the minimum level of accessibility, though the above five failures are still the most common ones that we report on to this day. Without these elements, your website has little to no chance of being accessible.

So what can you do to start bridging the gap, meet these minimum accessibility standards and open up your content to another 20% of the market who might be locked out?

1. Design for Accessibility

Accessibility is often an add-on that gets thought about near the end of a project. 
Once everything is built and almost ready for release, an Accessibility Audit is done and suddenly the Dev team has 40 issues that need to be rectified before release, blowing out budgets and threatening the entire project.

2. Educate Staff

Accessibility is something that most people have heard of, but often think of as someone else's responsibility. It's the Designer, the Dev, the Testers job. Everybody is pointing their finger at someone else. When in reality it is everybody's responsibility. Each person in a project has a role to play. Unfortunately, most people are not aware of which part is theirs to play. Make accessibility part of your education strategy, just like OH&S is. Send team members to courses tailored to their role, so that each person understands their obligations and how to meet them.

3. Test for Accessibility

While an Accessibility Audit should always be carried out by an independent third party. There is a lot that you can test for during development. More and more tools are coming on to the market that automate this for you. There is no reason you can't run checks for colour contrast, form labels and alt-text before you send your code to audit. That way you will be paying the professionals to find the big ticket items, rather than the low hanging fruit.

4. Ask people with disability

One of the most common annoyances, grievances or pet hates for people with disability is that so much is done for them, without asking them first. It would be like if you hired someone to mow your lawns and they came to your house and built a giant fountain in your front yard without asking you and then got mad at you because you weren't grateful for their offering. The fountain could be a beautifully handcrafted piece of sculpture. But if it didn't meet your needs and you didn't want a giant sculpture of 3 dolphins spitting water over chubby cherub babies into a mosaic pool next to your letterbox, you would be rightfully annoyed.

"Disability" is a relatively small word that describes an entire spectrum of abilities, needs and barriers. Reach out to your customers, clients and staff, find out their needs and build accordingly.

Together we can bridge the gap.