Article: “Implementing recommendations from web accessibility guidelines: Would they also provide benefits to nondisabled users?”

Citation: Schmutz, S., Sonderegger, A., & Sauer, J. (2016). Implementing recommendations from web accessibility guidelines: Would they also provide benefits to nondisabled users? Human Factors 58(4): 611-629.

This article (published online earlier this month, before its print date in June) examines whether web sites which meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0are also more usable for non-disabled users. The authors provide a brief overview of WCAG and why accessibility is important, and suggest that whether or not accessible design has “adverse effects on nondisabled users” might play an important role in encouraging adoption (p. 612), pointing to a 2012 conference presentation which showed that empirical evidence was the most successful driver of accessible design.

To measure the effects of accessible design (as defined by WCAG) on users without disabilities, the authors modified an existing web site, creating one version which did not conform to WCAG standards, one which conformed to the WCAG’s A-level standards, and one which conformed its AA-level standards, and measuring the ability of sixty-one participants without any diagnosed disability to meet a number of tasks on the modified web sites (p. 614). The authors measured both task completion time and task completion rate (p. 618), ultimately determining that users were able to complete more tasks and to complete tasks more quickly when they were WCAG-conforming (p. 619)

In their discussion of the findings, the authors note that it was likely a “combination of changes” rather than a single WCAG criterion being met which improved overall usability, despite some of the criteria presumably having no effect on non-disabled users (p. 621-622). They point out that WCAG’s accessibility requirements in often cases are the same as good design principles in general, and that “beneficial effects of accessibility on nondisabled users” are perhaps unsurprising as a result (p. 622).

Ultimately, this article shows that accessible design on web sites can improve usability for nondisabled users. As the authors point out in their conclusion, AA conformance—the second-highest possible conformance to WCAG—was necessary for the biggest gains; however, meeting this level of conformance was “rather easy”, since it is not difficult to implement designs that meet the required criteria for AA conformance (p. 623).

It’s worth reiterating that the point of accessible design is not to make web sites easier to use for non-disabled users, but to enable the use of the web by users who are otherwise unable to access it.

However, given the persistent myth that accessible web sites are “ugly” and “expensive and difficult”, research which aims to empirically prove that accessible web sites are actually more usable than non-accessible ones—and easy to implement—is a welcome development.

Article: Applying a critical approach to investigate barriers to digital inclusion and online social networking among young people with disabilities

Citation: Newman, L., Browne-Yung, K., Raghavendra, P., Wood, D. & Grace, E. (2016). Applying a critical approach to investigate barriers to digital inclusion and online social networking among young people with disabilities. Information Systems Journal. (Note: page numbers given below refer to the PDF, as this article is as unpublished in print form, and lacks official pagination.)

Newman et al. explore digital inclusion through the lens of critical theory—specifically, the critical theory of French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. The authors begin with a brief, intersectional overview of research on Internet usage, calling on studies which show that percentages of Internet use differ along racial, income-based, and educational lines, as well as in individuals with a disability (p. 1). In their own study, the authors focus on Internet use amongst young people with disabilities (‘digital inclusion’), an area in which they note little research has been performed (p. 4).

The authors argue that Bourdieu’s critical theory, which “is concerned with understanding how inequalities in society are created and maintained” (p. 5) by the “Doxa or ‘natural order of things'” (p. 7), serves as a particularly useful tool for examining digital inclusion, as it allows for study of the “economic, social, and cultural capitals” which are distributed unequally on a societal level (p. 6).

Brief definitions of each level are provided, as follows:

  • Economic Capital – “wealth and assets”
  • Social Capital – “resources generated through group membership”
  • Cultural Capital – “the collective value of adaptive knowledge, skills, competencies, and the influence of family background and investment in education that may shape success”

(p. 6)

To study these capitals in the context of digital inclusion, the authors taught 18 young people with cerebral palsy or acquired brain injury basic Internet use in home-based interventions (p. 8), with roughly 11 visits each over a 7-month period, after which each participant in the study was interviewed (p. 9). After the interventions and interviews, the authors analyzed the capitals of each participant.

Economic capital: The authors note that, in addition to devices used to access the Internet, those with disabilities may also require specialised software for reading and writing support as well as often-expensive assistive technology (AT) (p. 12).

Social capital: The authors found that, in general, Internet use reinforced existing social groups (p. 13). One area of social capital more likely to be needed by those with disabilities is someone who is able to give computer help (p. 13), and the authors noted that the participants’ families’ knowledge of resources and the participants’ “limited conversation and communication skills” impacted their ability to access the Internet (p. 14).

Cultural capital: The authors found that a lack of family knowledge/ability when it comes to the Internet and technology can impact those with disabilities more than those without (p. 14). This is primarily due to those without disabilities being able to just get online, whereas those with disabilities require additional resources specific to their group, which parents are unlikely to be aware of (p. 15).

A list of types of capital which affect this group’s Internet access is provided on page 20:
A chart shows the economic, cultural, and social forms of capital offline, online, and specifically related to those with disabilities.

The authors provide several pages’ worth of discussion on these capitals, noting that many of the “digital” capitals required for Internet access (including hardware and software, the ability to actually use the hardware and software, conversational ability, and needing to know people who can provide IT assistance) are increased by those with disabilities, as they must also have access to, operate, and understand how to use AT.

The authors’ use of Bourdieu’s critical theory makes very clear what seems intuitive: Internet access is more difficult for those with disabilities. As well, it usefully pinpoints specific capitals that members of this population require for Internet access.

Web site: Web Accessibility for Online Course Content / Web Accessibility Handbook

Web Accessibility for Online Course Content is a web site and accompanying PDF handbook put together by Karen Sorensen for faculty members at Portland Community College.

The site is aimed at teaching faculty who use online resources as part of their instruction how to ensure they are accessible to those with disabilities. It is structured as a series of instructional pages targeted at specific accessibility-related tasks:

In addition to these tutorials, the site includes some studies done on accessibility in specific disciplines and a page discussing automated accessibility checkers.

The accompanying Web Accessibility Handbook is a short document which replicates each of the web site links on its own page, for easy printing and offline access.

Although it’s worth noting that those of us who are not PCC faculty will probably be unable to take advantage of the “Get Help with Your Content” section, the rest of the site (and the handbook) are great resources for instructors and others who want to ensure that their content is accessible but aren’t sure how to get started.

webtext: Access/ibility: Access and Usability for Digital Publishing

Access/ibility: Access and Usability for Digital Publishing is a free-to-use webtext published in issue 20.2 of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy.

The webtext comes from a seminar of the same name at WVU, and includes a number of resources on the intersection of accessibility and digital publishing, such as short essays arguing for the importance of accessibility, a set of best practices for creators and editors of web content, and a bibliography for further reading.

In “The Case for Accessibility as in Usability,” makes a strong case for thinking of access to digitally published documents as meaning more than just “free information” (source), and gives librarians and other OA advocates tools and guidelines to get started doing so without delay.

Blog Series on Accessibility at The “Lib Pub” Blog

Since July of 2015, the “Lib Pub” blog has been publishing an occasional series of posts about accessibility in digital publishing. These posts came out of a seminar held at West Virginia University titled Access/ibility in Digital Publishing, and for the most part consist of discussions of that seminar or basic discussions of how to make things accessible on the web. However, the posts as a whole make some interesting points about the intersection of digital publishing and Open Access (OA) with accessibility.

In her post, “A library perspective”, Susan Ivey discusses the conflict between access and accessibility, and notes that librarians tend to concentrate on access in terms of standardized metadata, linked data, and other technical considerations, and can loose sight of accessibility in a broader sense.

In “A role for libraries”, Sarah Kennedy mentions two concepts in particular: lo-fi production technologies and perseverant design.

Lo-fi production technologies (as discussed by Karl Stolley in the Lo-Fi Manifesto) are just what they sound like—low-tech methods of creating and distributing content. These technologies are less likely to obsolesce, and are also more likely to be human-readable with little or no additional work. (Note that this does not necessarily mean they are accessible, though. The header in Stoller’s manifesto is made up of ASCII art—certainly not screen-reader friendly, and probably difficult to read in general for people not used to the font.)

Perseverant Design is a term used by Melanie Yergeau which refers to reappropriating “perseverant behaviors”—those “which are restrictive and repetitive and which do not necessarily follow appropriately with the social context”. Like Kennedy, I am intrigued by this idea, but am uncertain how it could be used in practice. Still, the idea of phrasing design in these terms is an interesting one.

Beyond these posts are several which focus on technical details of creating accessible content: a post by Melanie Schlosser on accessible publishing in HTML, a post by Sarah Kennedy which lays out accessibility testing workflows and tools, and a post (published today) by Kevin Hawkins which briefly discusses accessibility in journal publishing.

Tool: How to Meet WCAG 2.0 from WAI website

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is the organization that manages—among other things—the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines designed to make websites more accessible.

As you might expect from the name, “How to Meet WCAG 2.0” is a free online tool put together by WAI which aims to help web developers ensure that their web sites meet the guidelines.

The tool is essentially a version of the full guidelines which also contains methods developers allows the user to filter by compliance level, technologies used (e.g. HTML strategies vs CSS strategies), and by type of design (developing; interaction design; content design; visual design). By selecting or deselecting one of these filters, the user is able to limit what shows on the list of guidelines and see specific strategies they might use to ensure that their site meets the WCAG 2.0 guidelines.

Screenshot of the "How to Meet WCAG 2.0" tool, showing filters and criteria
Some of the filter options available in the tool

Given that the guidelines have a reputation of being hard to understand, this tool should make designing accessible web sites—or updating inaccessible ones—easier for non-expert web developers.

How to Meet WCAG 2.0” is available for free on the WAI website, and knowledgeable users are also invited to contribute by reporting bugs, contributing to the tool on GitHub, or adding new WCAG techniques.

Book chapter: Collection development, e-resources, and barrier-free access.

Citation: Schmetzke, A. (2015). Collection development, e-resources, and barrier-free access. in B. Wentz, P.T. Jaeger, & J.C. Bertot, (Eds.), Accessibility for persons with disabilities and the inclusive future of libraries. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group.

In this book chapter, Schmetzke examines e-resource accessibility with a specific eye to how librarians can keep accessibility issues in mind when acquiring (or when subscribing to) various e-resources like databases and online journals. The author includes a letter from a friend who was given the run-around by her local library and its consortium when she was unable to access a database with her screen reader to show that “clearly, librarians should consider accessibility when considering electronic information products” (p.113).

With this as his impetus, the author examined library schools, existing literature, and professional library organizations to get a sense of whether or not librarians were receiving guidance encouraging them to keep issues of accessibility in mind when doing so, or not.

The rest of the chapter is split into three parts, as summarized below:
Library Organizations

  • ALA – Schmetzke mentions that, despite a lack of communication between ALA’s various divisions and interest groups, ALA has at least discussed the accessibility of electronic resources a few times. The most important document to have come out of this, he says, is “Purchasing of Accessible Electronic Resources Resolution,” a 2009 resolution by the ALA council which argues strongly for the responsibility of libraries to ensure their electronic resources meet Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 to the best of their abilities. (p.115)

This section also mentions three web accessibility toolkits:

Library Schools

Schmetzke notes that, while data about how (or if) accessibility is taught in library schools is scarce, several surveys have shown a lack of focus on the topic in North American schools.

Literature Review

Schmetzke performed a content analysis on 55 books about collection development published between 2000 and 2014 to determine the coverage of accessibility in general and in relation to e-resources, concluding that very few books cover the topic.

Book chapter: Libraries and the future of equal access for people with disabilities

Citation: Jaeger, P.T., Wentz, B., & Bertot, J.C. (2015). Libraries and the future of equal access for people with disabilities: Legal frameworks, human rights, and social justice. in B. Wentz, P.T. Jaeger, & J.C. Bertot, (Eds.), Accessibility for persons with disabilities and the inclusive future of libraries. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group.

In this book chapter from a 2015 book focused on accessibility in libraries, the authors look at several legal structures intended to provide equal access to library services for those with disabilities. This chapter is in the “Digital Library Accessibility” section of the book, so deals largely with access to digital resources (an earlier section of the book contains chapters on physical accessibility issues).

The authors make the argument that “Information and the Internet can now be seen as being central to human rights,” (p.239), citing articles as early as 2000 which argue this, noting that the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly declares that people have the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media” without interference (p.240).

After discussing how library and information organizations like ALA, IFLA, and UNESCO act as proponents of libraries’ roles as agents of social justice in this sense, and providing a basic overview of laws in various countries intended to ensure equal Internet access for those with disabilities, the authors move into discussing how public libraries already provide access to many online resources for free, as well as providing education on digital and information literacy (p.246).

Although the authors note that these are “uniquely important to people with disabilities,” (p. 247), and briefly discuss several ways that libraries (in general and specifically) focus on those with disabilities (p. 248), little time is spent focusing on the details of how libraries can increase digital accessibility in any practical sense. To be fair, this is largely a “why” chapter, but the lack of specifics is still disappointing.

Article: The Inclusion Principle

Article citation: Link-Rodrigue, M. (2009). The inclusion principle. A List Apart.

In her article “The Inclusion Principle,” from issue 288 of web design magazine A List Apart, Margit Link-Rodrigue explores the idea of “Affordance” as it applies to designing web sites for people of all ability levels and regardless of the technologies they may be using.

Affordance is a design theory which asserts that a thing should be designed in order that the user can “look at [it] and intuitively understand how to interact with it.” As Link-Rodrigue points out, this theory falls short where those with disabilities are concerned. What may be intuitive can all the same be unusable.

Enter universal design. This theory holds that design must be “inherently accessible,” so that absolutely anybody should be able to use the thing you’re designing for it to be successful. Link-Rodrigue notes that many designers—web designers especially—feel this stifles their creativity, and/or may simply be unaware of the challenges that those with disabilities face when browsing the web. More importantly, she argues that universal design doesn’t have to cause problems in either of these areas.

The main problem in web design comes from the fact that accessibility is often a secondary concern, something web designers or web site owners think about after a problem occurs. This is backwards, Link-Rodrigue argues. Instead, designers should operate under the titular inclusion principle: moving away from marginalizing those with disabilities by making ‘standard’ web sites accessible to them, and moving towards including these users by designing web sites with them in mind from the outset.

While this seems like splitting hairs, Link-Rodrigue is quick to point out that it isn’t. A shift to inclusive design means that sites are accessible by the way they’re designed. Instead of an “outcome-oriented” accessibility, which may not even properly make a whole site accessible to those with certain types of disability not covered by the specific outcome, sites created with inclusive design in mind are “distinctively process-oriented”—they’re universal, and do not need anything special done to them in order to be usable by anybody at all.

For fuller details on (specifically for web sites), and how to embrace the shift from accessible to inclusive design, read Margit Link-Rodrigue’s “The inclusion principle” at A List Apart.

Guidelines: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0)

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 is a guidelines document published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) which intends to provide web developers with a series of “testable statements” they can use in order to improve access to and usability of their website for users with disabilities. (source)

The criteria presented by the guidelines are split into four “principles,” each of which describes a specific aspect of a website’s user experience. The criteria in these principles are technology-independent, meaning the guidelines do not present specific ways of creating an accessible website in (e.g.) HTML or PHP. This theoretically means that the guidelines do not deprecate as quickly as one tied to a specific technology or markup language.

Principle one is that a website must be Perceivable:
Criteria in this principle deal with content—specifically, with ways in which a website should present its content so that users can perceive it. This includes providing text alternatives for images, audio, video, and other non-text content; making a distinction between layout and content so that users who are not on a standard computer screen can still perceive it in a coherent way; and several other things.

Principle two is that a website must be Operable:
Criteria in this principle deal with navigation. Websites must be keyboard-accessible, must provide users with enough time to process and interact with content, must not be designed in a way that causes seizures, and must help users navigate.

Principle three is that a website must be Understandable:
These criteria present ways in which end users must be able to understand a website’s content and how to use it. This includes things like specifying a language for the website, making sure pages on it operate predictably, and helping users correct mistakes.

Principle four is that a website must be Robust:
Principle four is essentially a catch-all principle which states that a website and its content must be usable on a variety of devices and with a variety of tools (“user agents”) such as assistive technologies.

Beyond these four principles, WCAG 2.0 also presents three levels of conformance: A, AA, and AAA, with A being the minimum level required for conformance to the guidelines.

The full WCAG 2.0 guidelines are free to read on the WAI website, and include more specific details about meeting the criteria, a glossary, and access to older versions of the guidelines.