Feature Writer Ann Chiapetta – Hey, Update Your Website

Have you ever been surfing the web and think you’ve found a website you like, only to find it doesn’t work with a screen reader? I don’t know about you, but it’s even more frustrating when this is discovered after investing a few minutes tabbing through it. I’m not sure where the disconnect is regarding web design and accessibility. The reason I say this is because web standards have become more inclusive in the past five years. Now one can find support and design information on the web from a number of reliable and informative sources. One such source is the University of Minnesota’s website. They hold a high standard in ensuring all students, including those with disabilities can access all UMN services. I find they are a fine example of what inclusive web access is.

They are located at: http://accessibility.umn.edu/

Another great resource is the U.S. Access Board’s 508 compliance documentation which can be found at: http://ada508.com/

So, with all this support, why do website designers still make the mistake of not including accessibility whenever creating a new website?

When I was involved in choosing an open source platform for a non-profit, the first question I asked was how to make it functional and accessible to screen reading software and at the same time be visually appealing. I found the task to be difficult but not impossible. In the end, we got most of our initial needs met and the quirks worked themselves out in time.

My point is this, if someone like me, who is definitely not a programmer, can identify and assist in creating an award winning, accessible and functional website, why can’t the so called “professionals” do it? The answer lies in the lack of awareness. Inclusive design is a fairly new concept to website designers. Many of them have admitted to me that they “forget” to consider that end users like me even attempt to surf the web. One even commented, “Wow, I didn’t know blind people could use computers.”

Additionally, as technology progresses, our responsibility to continue to educate ourselves as blind end users must also increase. This can be frustrating and time consuming. Even so, the burden is ours to bear. If we, as consumers, don’t speak up and educate the very people who design the products we rely upon, who will do it for us? How we each choose to handle this burden is an individual’s choosing. We can choose to boycott a website if it isn’t accessible and it is of no use.

Another choice is to contact the webmaster and tell them what is not accessible and why. I’ve done this on occasion and although it is also time consuming, it has paid off. I choose sites that are important to me, one that I use at least once a week. I take notes on the barriers presented to my screen reader, write them out and send an email. If I cannot do that, then I send a hard copy letter, fax, and sometimes even follow up with a phone call.

So far I’ve convinced a writing website to make a change that increases the functionality and accessibility of the site. I have also been instrumental in educating our regional web services operations in testing the main database and computer I use in the workplace.

What are your successes in making changes on the web? Tell us in the Reader’s Forum.

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