November 12, 2010

Revisiting Web Accessibility

“Accessibility is not a box to tick; it is a call to action.”
~ Richard Hulse

In the past few months I have realized that this blog is more about effective work habits than embedded librarianship. I'll take it. After all, the whole of life is not so much about what you know, but what you repeat. It takes effective work habits to put into practice everything I learned in library school. One thing I learned was to be user-focused, and this includes focusing on the needs of users with disabilities.

It's been about two years since I was studying and speaking about web accessibility in a significant way, but I always try to make it part of my work here. Some of the main principles--especially if you frame the issue as "universal design"--remain constant: make your technology (information technology or otherwise) easier for everyone to use. But a lot of the details change and, as with all things tech, we have to keep up.

Today I reread a lot of the great web accessibility resources that have been gathering dust in my sidebar. I was reminded of the unique role of librarians in advancing the issue of web accessibility, because of our special place at the intersection of information technology and outreach to underserved populations. I installed the Firefox add-on for accessibility, and I ran a few of our social media tools through an online accessibility check. Now I just have to figure out how to interpret our Twitter report card (below).

One of the things I read gave a description of web accessibility that just sounds like a good habit in general: "Give all users more options and control when accessing web resources and support the interoperability concepts of the web." How do we make it happen? The same way we do everything else:
  • Know your users. We recently started rolling out an online magazine to replace the print version. We did a lot of "ground softening" for older, less tech-savvy users. If we have a good sense of which parts of our web content present challenges to users with disabilities (Do we? Jury's still out.), then we should be able to help all users through the transition.

  • Plan ahead. Have you checked your site for keyboard-only navigation? This is a key piece of web accessibility that could fall through the cracks during project management if you don't plan ahead--just like everything else that falls through the cracks if you don't plan ahead.

  • Work together. It's hard to be a one-man-band/one-woman-choir on web accessibility, or on any issue for that matter. You need to recruit allies.
If you are slow to start, or don't know where to start with web accessibility, I recommend reading the first few sections of Dive Into Accessibility, which gives great profiles of real users with disabilities--users who are much more colorful characters than just Jane Doe with a screenreader. These profiles remind you of the complexity of ability and disability, and of the human beings trying to access your web content.

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