The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 brought about a dramatic shift in how we learn, do business, and even relax. As online-only approaches became the way of life for many, the need to create and maintain accessible experiences became more important. The role of accessible platforms that let all people, including disabled people, fully participate in modern life became more prominent. This holds true for the nonprofit sector as well. As Knowbility gears up for another Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR), I have some thoughts on the uphill the road that anyone working in a nonprofit who wants to be more inclusive will face.
As a communication specialist for Knowbility and a journalism lecturer at Cal State Long Beach, accessibility is not a nice-to-have. Without screen readers and accessible interfaces that allow me to gather all manner of accessible content, it’s hard to imagine that I’d hold the professional roles I have today. Key to my participation in modern life is that the tools I use and the websites and apps I interact with are accessible. This holds true for participation in the nonprofit sector. It should go without saying, but here goes: disabled people want to be active participants in nonprofits and philanthropy. Volunteering, making donations, working on staff (including in leadership positions), and joining boards are all roles that disabled people want to hold in mission-driven organizations. It is unfortunate that in many cases, the nonprofit sector is missing the mark on providing accessible content for members of their communities to fully join this vibrant aspect of modern life. This is where AIR comes in.
Knowbility’s original community program
Beginning in 1998, Knowbility began producing annual hackathon-style events in which web developers and designers created an accessible website for a nonprofit organization or independent artist. As technology has evolved, AIR has gone global. In most cases nowadays, nonprofits join the competition wishing to improve the accessibility of their existing websites rather than starting from scratch. Those who embark on this journey know the value of including disabled people in their work and show their commitment to inclusion by taking tangible steps towards this goal.
Accessibility barriers are the rule, not the exception
But there’s lots of work to be done. In 2019, well-known accessibility firm WebAIM surveyed the homepages of the top 100 nonprofit websites on the web. Its results showed that 98 of the 100 pages contained violations of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, an international standard for web accessibility. That’s right: only two homepages contained no errors.
Depending on the severity of the barrier present, a disabled person may still be able to interact with a page and complete a certain task. But the presence of WCAG failures indicates that disabled people may have a difficult time completing a task, if it’s at all doable. Automatic testing tools, like the one WebAIM used for this survey, only detect about a quarter of accessibility barriers. For anyone new to accessibility, WCAG should only be considered as a starting point on your accessibility journey.
The three most common error types were color contrast failures, missing alternative text for images, and empty links. Text with poor contrast will be difficult to read for people with visual disabilities. Alternative text is used to describe the contents of a photo, chart, or an image of text. Screen readers can access the alternative text from the browser. Image descriptions generated with artificial intelligence, though increasingly popular, are still poor substitutes for something a person has written. When a screen reader comes across an empty link, no link text is announced, and so your visitor using a screen reader won’t know where this empty link goes. As WebAIM’s Cyndi Rowland writes: “The result is disappointing when 98 of 100 pages have automatically detectable errors; these are the low hanging fruit of the web accessibility world.”
Surely, in this new era of inclusivity, in which mission-driven people in nonprofits and philanthropy want to bring about a better world for historically marginalized groups, accessibility to the digital world for disabled people must be a priority. I’m an optimist by nature, but hoping alone won’t get things done. Let’s get to work.