Here is how code affects persons with disabilities

International Day of Persons with Disabilities is not a day we generally take to the street, even among those of us who work or live with disabilities.  I’m hoping we can use this day as an excuse to stop and think about barriers people face, what we’ve achieved and how we can improve.

People with Disabilities (PWD) in Canada have made great strides towards equality. Ontario and Manitoba have implemented good legislation for accommodation. Trudeau’s Mandate Letters include points on creating a Canadians with Disabilities Act. It’s reasonable to assume that with Carla Qualtrough and Kent Hehr in Cabinet we’ll see this implemented shortly.

That being said, we have a long ways to go before PWD have equality in Canada.

Web accessibility really hasn’t received as much attention as adding ramps and elevators. People understand how stairs block navigation for someone in a wheelchair, but it is much harder to explain how code might do the same thing.

Disabilities that might affect your ability to use a website include, but are not limited to: visual impairments, motor control-related disability, vertigo, cognitive disabilities, dyslexia and hearing impairments.

An accessible website is one that allows people to fully perceive, operate and understand it in a robust, real-world context. Website accessibility is based on global guidelines created by the World Wide Web Consortium – WCAG 2.0. Unfortunately, too many organizations see these as “nice to have” rather than a necessity, or just assume that their web developer has taken care of it.

A few web designers are making a conscious effort to educate themselves about how to produce more semantic, structured sites that are more inclusive. There are now a number of good tools that even non-technical people can use to assess common web accessibility problems. There are also many resources available to learn about what is new in the field.

Having a truly accessible site though does require a change in the culture so that its consideration is not just an afterthought. Organizations also need to start considering how they can support accessibility improvements in the software that they use.

Let’s start thinking big in Canada about disability. In 2012, Statistics Canada data states that 13.7 per cent of Canadians live with a disability. The aging baby boomers will only increase this number.

With web accessibility there is a huge potential to actively engage PWD in fixing these problems. In fact, unemployment rate for PWD was 8.6 per cent in 2006, and is consistently higher than that of the general population.

Fortunately, more websites are now built with open-source software libraries where accessibility improvements are spearheaded by a community of dedicated developers.

All of us have a social responsibility to help address issues that affect PWD, specifically with the increase share of services delivered online. On this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, perhaps it is time to also ask how we can make the Internet more inclusive. Why now? Because it’s 2015.

Mike Gifford
Mike Gifford
Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth. As a techie at heart, Mike likes to get into the code when he gets the chance. Being ultimately concerned about the implementation and implications of the technology, he is able to envision how your website can become a much more powerful communications tool for your organization. Mike has been involved with accessibility issues since the early 1990's and is a strong advocate for standards based design.

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