When I come home from work, after a fun filled day of analyzing website code, my 6-year-old son sometimes asks me "What's your job daddy?"
I have to give him a simple answer he can understand, so I tell him my job is to make sure that everyone can go on the Internet.
If he keeps asking me further questions, I usually distract him with a popsicle, cartoon, or my iPad.
I always find this a useful reminder that ultimately, we who develop webpages and test them for usability and accessibility are constructing our content and technology in a way that allows users of all ages and abilities to access and interact with our websites. The user can be 15 or 85, blind or sighted, using an iPhone or an old desktop, using keyboard, mouse, or speech recognition.
Some users even experience our websites entirely through other senses:
- A blind person using a screen reader experiences our web content through hearing.
- A deaf-blind person uses touch exclusively to interact with our website transformed into braille.
Despite having been blind myself for over 30 years, I still find it very impressive that this is possible, and it absolutely is possible.
We can, for the most part, standardize how content is created accessibly, how web browsers interpret the content, and even how they communicate the content to the user, on a screen or through the document object model (dom) which is a communication layer between the browser and assistive technologies - hardware and software that transforms our page into an interface that best suits these end users. What we cannot standardize, however, are the end users themselves or what technologies they are using.
Users of assistive technologies are often referred to as "power users" or "extreme users" because they take advantage of content structure, keyboard interaction, and other advanced features of your web content to navigate and interact with your website. But just because a user has a disability and uses assistive technology software does not mean he or she has automatically acquired superman-like abilities to understand and take advantage of the document structure.
In a recent study of 350 screen reader users, my colleague and I discovered that only 20% of the respondants had received formal training on how to use their screen readers for effective web browsing.
What makes this number even more interesting is that this is 20% of the users who are actually active enough online to discover our survey and had the time, patience, and skill to fill it out. This means that despite our best efforts at following usability and accessibility standards, we still get complaints from end users of assistive technologies from time to time.
There may be multiple reasons for this:
- The user is using outdated assistive technology.
- The assistive technology has not yet implemented some features, or interprets them differently from what you, or the standard, expected (this applies to all software, not just assistive technologies, else we would never have to test our websites in different browsers).
- The user is not aware of the features you implemented and how to take advantage of them for effective browsing of your website.
I can offer up some advice for you:
- Don't panic or get discouraged.
- Do not get frustrated or start custom implementing sites for certain assistive technologies, rather than sticking to standards. The world of assistive technology is often plagued by the chicken and egg problem. The assistive technology vendor has not implemented part of a standard because no websites use it. The websites avoid using that standard because it is not supported by the assistive technology. The best solution to this is to implement the standards when possible and educate users and vendors alike.
- Most importantly, there are things we can do both to help the end users who need it and little things we can do to make our content even more adaptable to people of all ages and abilities.
- We can't be held responsible for the end users' efficiency at using their assistive technology, but we can sometimes point them in the right direction.
In the second part of this blog I will offer some simple steps and advice on how you can help the end users even more and ensure they can enjoy your web content.