by Allan Friedman, CFILC's Technologies Manager
Can the Internet ever be truly accessible for people with disabilities? Will there ever be a time when people who use adaptive software or hardware have equal access to all websites and online applications, when they won't have to deal with workarounds, alternative sites and just plain inaccessible content? Unfortunately, the answer may be no.
To begin with, accessibility is a complex thing. Whether a person can access a website or its applications depends on several variables including the coding of the site or application, the user's software, hardware and humanware; that is, how well the individual user knows how to use the adaptive software, hardware and other applications involved. A site that meets all the guidelines for accessibility and is well constructed to facilitate access may not be experienced as fully accessible by all users.
Barriers to Web Accessibility
Compounding this challenge is the evolutionary nature of the online world. Websites and applications are developed and are then revised time and again. Few are developed that fully meet guidelines or standards for accessibility upon launch. It is only after the product has been released and user feedback highlights the barriers facing people with disabilities that companies apply fixes or add alternative sites to provide access.
The constant website updates and revisions released to improve the user experience often involve changes in navigational elements which hinder the user experience for people with disabilities. Such changes can leave users confused, disoriented and unable to use new or revised features.
The rising tide of user-generated content on social media sites is also adding to the problem. Much of the content is visual: videos, photos, animation. Little of it has alt tags to describe the photos nor are the videos audio described for users who are blind.
Web Accessibility Guidelines
So, despite long established guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium and federal regulations (which are also frequently updated and revised) in the form of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, accessibility for people with disabilities is still an afterthought, an accommodation made for those who complain. Many people who are blind still have to go around to the back door, still must find an alternative while sighted users simply type in a URL, point, click and go.
While Section 508 regulations have helped, little incentive exists for business to include accessibility as a pre-launch requirement for new products. Section 508 only applies to government information services that are provided electronically. Only products designed with government clients in mind must comply with Section 508.
The W3C Web Access Initiative (WAI) and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG2.0) are just that—guidelines. There is no enforcement nor can there be. The vast majority of Internet users reject the idea of regulatory control of the Internet in any form. Besides, many websites and services are based in other countries where regulation by the U.S. government would not apply.
So the digital divide may never be completely bridged for people with disabilities. The goal posts are continuously moving. Although increasing in number, people with disabilities are a small fraction of Internet users.
Accessible Apps and Devices
There are some bright spots. Newer devices for the mass market are beginning to incorporate simple versions of adaptive and assistive applications. Apple's iPads have a built-in text-to-speech application. There are also many adaptive and assistive applications that can be downloaded at little or no cost. The latest iPhones respond to voice commands.
The inclusion of adaptive and assistive applications in consumer electronic products is a promising development. Perhaps, as assistive technology evolves, it will continue to be mainstreamed into new devices and the trend will spread to websites and online applications. For now, we can only hope.