Accessibility on the Move: Optimizing your websites for mobile accessibility and usability

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Here is a recap of the August #a11y from Denis Boudreau.  You can read the transcript of the tweetchat on chirpstory.

#a11y - August 20th, 2012

Screencap of the video feed of the #a11ychat team: Karl Groves, Glenda Sims, Denis Boudreau, and Caitlin Cashin. Paul Adam not pictured.

The team on the #a11ychat back channel: (starting from the top left, clockwise) Karl Groves, Glenda Sims, Caitlin Cashin, and Denis Boudreau. (Paul Adam not pictured)

Anyone who's been advocating inclusion on the Web for more than 5 minutes understands how closely related Web accessibility and mobile Web best practices really are. Anyone who's witnessed a blind user efficiently handle a mobile device thanks to a screen reader knows just how much these technologies can change lives. So having had the chance to do plenty of both in the past few years, I was thrilled to be invited to co-host the latest #a11y on Twitter, which took place on August 20th. The topic, as you might have guessed already, was mobile accessibility, something that's been on my radar for quite some time.

Mobile Web and Web accessibility, coming together under a single, online social event - really, what more could we ask for?

It all started with a tweet from Karl Groves: "Tweet chat. Tonight. 5-6 pm Eastern. Mobile a11y. Bring it!". For those of you who aren't yet familiar with the concept of #a11y, it's actually very simple, and a lot of fun. Think of it as an hour-long loosely organized, topic-driven conversation over Twitter. Except there's no kitchen, no stove, no fridge, and participants need to keep their thoughts under 140 characters. It also happens to be a great opportunity to bring together an entire community of awesome folks (you) over a specific topic and allow everyone to discuss and share what they know. Sounds interesting? Of course it is.

Conducted by @goodwitch, @karlgroves and @pauljadam, under the coordinating help of @dequesystems, the monthly event had previously covered topics such as accessibility evaluation tools, time-based media accessibility, gamification, and social media. Having recently started with Deque, I figured it was time to get my feet wet.

So when I was asked to write a blog post about this event, I figured that instead of just providing a summary of the things that were discussed, I would share with you all one of the most powerful underlying messages that came out of this discussion. So here goes.

It's not about what you want...

We started the discussion with a question to developers and designers: "Do you only support a specific set of mobile devices and operating systems? If so, which ones?" To my surprise, most people agreed on being focused on targeting Web standards in general and not specific devices. And that's a really good thing.

Over the past two or three years, I have personally seen countless organizations invest a lot of money in short-sighted (no pun intended) "mobile Web strategies" which basically consisted in developing device specific applications, intended for a just-as-specific target group, usually, the iOS community (iphone users, ipad users, etc.).

While it may seem to most people that just about everyone browsing the mobile Web uses an iPhone or an iPad, nothing could be further form the truth out there. According to statistics that came out in July 2012 from, mobile devices running the iOS operating system "only" account for 65.74% of total market shares, while devices running the Android operating system account for 20.16%. The remaining 14.7% are divided among Java ME, Blackberry, Symbian OS, Windows Mobile and other, less significant options. This means that any "mobile Web strategy" strictly involving applications intended for the iPhone and iPad would only cater for the needs of 65% of the users. Now, who in 2012 would deliberately invest important sums of money on their mobile Web presence, while willingly shutting out a third of their potential clients?

...It's about what your audience wants

So this was already interesting enough from a global perspective, but since this #a11y was on the topic of Mobile accessibility, we went further and asked: "what mobile devices do people with disabilities actually use?" This is where WebAIM's Screen Reader Users Survey really came in handy: it turns out that out of the 1,782 people who answered the survey back in May 2012, 58,5% of respondents said they were actually running iOS on an iPhone, iPad or iPod device. So, while this is a little less than the 65,74% from the general population, it is still a fairly large amount of users.

Besides the iOS aficionados, 20.3% of respondents were running Symbian OS on a Nokia device, 7.9% were running Android on a mobile device and 2.7% were using a device with Windows Mobile on it. A significant amount of people, as most would agree.

Considering that only a little over half of the survey respondents said they were using an iOS device, how much business sense would it make to invest in an accessible mobile Web strategy, if about half of the potential clients were actually shut out from the service because it basically came down to redirecting users to an iphone/ipad application?

Also, iDevices might account for a slight majority of mobile devices users with disabilities out there, but the truth is, not everyone can afford them! As a matter of fact, these devices are significantly more expensive than Android or Windows Mobile devices and this weights heavily when the time comes to buy a mobile device. A lot of folks just don't care about design so much, they care about functionality. If they can get those functionalities for a third or half the price of an iphone you can bet your grandmother's dentures they will.

And the tools they are willing to use

While VoiceOver, the screen reading software that comes built in iOS has been praised as the be all and end all solution when it comes to mobile accessibility, a lot of mobile Web users with disabilities have no choice but to rely on other options, such as Talkback, the screen reader that can be installed on Android devices.

Something I learned during #a11y was that Windows Mobile devices currently have no screen reader support whatsoever. This means that there are only two "real" options for visually impaired users: the more expensive iOS devices coming with VoiceOver, or the more affordable Android devices, to which one can add TalkBack. As a participant pointed out, it would therefore be safe to presume that, as older phones retire and if the prices for iDevices don't drop, Android will win the race for cheaper phones.

This is not to say that both solutions are equally powerful. Based on comments that were shared during #a11y, at least one participant mentioned that the biggest hurdles for blind users using an Android device to access the mobile Web today were components such as forms, headings, and navigation. I guess we can safely assume that there is still lots of room for improvement and that given the incredible potential consumer market that people with disabilities represent, the next generation of screen readers on Android will keep improving also.

More Android devices on the market mean more people with disabilities using them. This also means more Android-driven screen reading solutions being used out there. Wouldn't it therefore make sense to seriously consider developing not only for iOS, but also for Android? That being said, who would want to develop everything twice, when really, all people actually need is a Web-based application built with the latest, more universally accessible toys such as HTML5, CSS3, Aria, and jQuery?

Enter jQuery Mobile

Some participants also mentioned the great potential of jQuery Mobile: a touch-optimized Web framework for smartphones and tablets. Built upon standard, semantic HTML, jQuery Mobile allows pages to be accessible to the broadest range of devices possible. Many of the components in jQuery Mobile leverage techniques such as focus management, keyboard navigation, and HTML attributes specified in the W3C's WAI-ARIA specification. All very exciting and definitely more promising than device specific development when it comes to mobile accessibility!

According to the jQueryMobile Doc on accessibility, by utilizing these techniques, development ensures an accessible experience to users with disabilities such as blindness, which may use screen readers or other assistive technology to access the Web. In a nutshell: clean semantic HTML, progressive enhancement and WAI-ARIA, integrated through a framework that provides assistive technology support. As Paul J. Adam rightfully stressed, all we need to check now is which operating system will provide the best support for any jQuerymobile application that would have been developed according to accessibility.

Wrapping it up

I felt this month's #a11y was a great opportunity to make a point for the open Web: always develop for standards, never for specific devices. You will never know what the people visiting your mobile website will be using, and good business is welcoming all customers, no matter what car they decide to use to get to your store.

If you would like to get a good idea of what you missed this time, please take a look at the "Accessibility on the Move" ChirpStory. The whole verbatim of the event is there. It's a really interesting way to grab an afterward overview on the topics that were covered.

Also, just so you know, we'll be running another #a11y next month and you're invited. Just show up and tell the big guy in the black leather coat at the door that you know me.

Finally, make sure to follow @dequesystems on Twitter to know when the next #a11y will happen and what the next topic will be. We have lots of great ideas for the upcoming ones.


Please visit twebevent for more information on September's #a11y and future #a11y.  Join us on September 17th at 5pm for a discussion of accessibility in higher ed.



For over fifteen years, Deque has been helping major corporations, government agencies, and other organizations ensure that their websites and mobile apps are accessible to everyone. We have more than fifteen years of history of serving the federal government, including undertaking the biggest accessibility program that's occurred in the United States government or anywhere. Deque also works with .edu's and mission-focused nonprofits to ensure that their materials and systems are usable and barrier free for users with disabilities. The company invented the first accessibility plug-in software, the first web-based testing platform, and the first server-based accessibility solution. All of these have been created in the service of helping our customers become accessible, advance the goals of their organization, and remove barriers for all users on the web.

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