This article was originally published in the September 2015 edition of "NTEN: Change", the quarterly newsletter of NTEN (Nonprofit Technology Network) and was crafted by the Marketing Team of Knowbility: Jessica Looney, Community Programs Manager; Divya Mulanjur, Marketing & Communications Associate; and Anne Mueller, Community Programs Assistant.
Web accessibility is the practice of removing any barriers to interaction with technology for anyone, including people with disabilities. Simply put, this means that when you create an application or a website, everyone should be able to access it.
The regulations that govern accessibility in the United States include Section 508 and the American with Disabilities Act. In 1998, the federal government amended the 1973 Rehabilitation Act that determined that “agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to access available to others” (Section508.gov). The American with Disabilities Act recently celebrated its 25thyear of existence. These regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. The Supreme Court recently determined that the Internet is public domain; therefore, it must be accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.
When implementing accessibility standards, web professionals must consider a myriad of factors. Disabilities can include visual, physical, auditory, speech, or cognitive impairments. Many websites, programs, and applications contain barriers that make it difficult for people with disabilities to use. A person with a visual impairment may use a third party program, like a screen reader, that will read aloud the text on the screen. Therefore, images should contain alternative text (“alt” text) that will describe the image the person cannot see. If a person is unable to utilize a mouse when using the Internet, the website should contain architecture that allows a keyboard-only user to easily maneuver through the site. Check out WCAG (Web Accessibility Content Guidelines) “Before/After Demonstration” to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. As well, you can use WAVE (Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool) to test your website’s accessibility.
In order to continue developing a more accessible Internet, web designers and developers should consider the following factors:
- Page Title: Be sure the page has a simple, explanatory title that informs the user of the name of the site
- Headings: Each page should have at least one heading. Maintain a friendly hierarchy when coding
- Text Size: Some people need to resize the size of the text on the screen. To test this, zoom in on your web page to see what it looks like
- Contrast: Use a website like Check My Colors or Contrast Ratio. The former will check your page for proper contrast, and the latter will give you a WCAG-based score after you input the text and colors you plan on using
- Landmarks: Add at least three landmarks to your site: “Main,” “Navigation,” and “Search”
- Keyboard access: Every element of a website should be easily accessible if a person is only using a keyboard, not a mouse. Links should be easily tabbed through, and drop-down menus should also be able to be tabbed through
- Links: Each link should contain a descriptive name
- Forms: Be sure any forms you have on your website are accessible. Identify the required fields
- Do not use the phrase “Click Here”—it’s too ambiguous
One of the best ways to test for accessibility is to try it out yourself! Unplug your mouse; if you’re using a laptop, turn off the track pad. Many computers now come with their own screen reader software; turn this on. Toggle the “high contrast” switch, and zoom in or magnify a web page. How does the site look? Are there overlaps? Are the colors appeasing to the eye? Do you get stuck on a link or page when trying to navigate only using a keyboard? This should be a good test for accessibility.
Knowbility is improving technology access for millions of youth and adults with disabilities all over the world with its many community programs. One such program is OpenAIR, Knowbility’s annual global web accessibility challenge. OpenAIR invites teams of web professionals to sign up for a global competition where each team has to develop an accessible website. These websites are made for nonprofits from around the world, who also sign up for OpenAIR.
OpenAIR began in 1998 in Austin Texas, as the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR), a web design competition that would:
- Raise awareness among technology professionals about the need for accessible websites and software applications
- Provide a medium for nonprofit agencies to harness the power of the Internet and expand their reach
- Create meaningful connections between the disengaged technology sector and the rest of the community
Today, OpenAIR has evolved into a global teaching and learning competition that puts accessibility front and center, where it belongs. OpenAIR imparts advanced accessibility skills to web developers across the globe, creates a challenging atmosphere for participants to enhance these abilities, and keeps them engaged with games and networking events. By bringing in an experienced panel of judges and assigning leading accessibility experts as mentors to each team, the competition has been fine-tuned as an incubator of quality websites.
In its 18th year now, OpenAIR has nurtured the creation of hundreds of accessible community websites. The FCC recently honored Knowbility by bestowing upon them the Chairman’s Award for Innovation in Accessibility for this program. For many arts and nonprofit organizations, the AIR site was their first foray onto the Web. OpenAIR is growing and is on its way to becoming an established global event. OpenAIR 2015 is a technology challenge that fosters healthy competitive spirit to do good and make a difference in the world through knowledge of universal design.