With files from Jori Negin-Shecter

Starting today, Ontario is implementing the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) which requires businesses to meet accessibility guidelines or face hefty fines as repercussions.

Siteimprove and Fable conducted a survey with 55 Canadians who said their disabilities affect how they browse or use websites. Fable is a platform that connects people with disabilities to digital teams for user research and accessibility testing. SaaS firm Siteimprove helps companies ensure their websites are up to particular accessibility guidelines such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 standards.

The results revealed that 63 per cent of respondents felt limited in their ability to use the internet when compared to those who do not have a disability. When confronted with barriers while shopping online, some respondents switched store brands, others even opted for shopping in person.

Samuel Proulx, an accessibility evangelist at Fable, is a screen reader user and an accessibility advocate who has a visual impairment himself.

“I remember sort of, at the very, very beginning of the pandemic, when everybody was kind of panicking, and shutdowns were happening, myself and other people in our community had a lot of difficulties all of a sudden getting groceries. The online delivery service that we were using before had now become so overloaded,” Proulx said.

There were other options, he said, but a lot of companies forget that their websites are lacking the basic resources required for those with disabilities, most notably visual impairments.

The survey revealed that many sites had poor text descriptions or alt text, which is critical for people with visual impairments.

Another issue was not being able to navigate a site with a keyboard as many users with disabilities rely on keyboards rather than a mouse to use a website.

While many sites have a long way to go, Proulx shared some of his favourite ones that offer good digital accessibility.

When it comes to shopping online Proulx said, “If it doesn’t come from Amazon or Costco, I don’t own it.”

Small businesses often struggle with online accessibility. A lot of the third-party platforms they use, Proulx said, cannot offer it.

“A lot of small businesses are trying very hard to be accessible. The issue in the industry is that the platforms that small businesses have to use are often letting them down,” he said.

He also said LinkedIn has great accessibility and isn’t obfuscated with pop-ups and other distractions. Proulx credits part of that to Microsoft.

Mike Cart, the vice-president of Siteimprove, is working with his team to help tackle accessibility issues in the digital space. He shared some key issues for companies to consider when building more digitally inclusive web presences.

Cleaning up behind the scenes

 With COVID restrictions easing, people are looking to travel again.

“For sites such as Expedia, it’s extremely important to make sure that everything that they have on [their] home screen is coded to be toggled by assistive technology such as screen readers,” Cart said.

He explained that when working with travel search engines, or any search engine for that matter, the coding on the back end needs to be able to identify different categories and tabs in order to navigate the website.

Shopify, or as Cart described them, “the Canadian Darling,” has been doing a good job of not only growing its organization but also putting a strong focus on accessibility. Cart praised the website’s simplistic design choice and noted that even beyond Shopify’s user interface, the important code under the hood, also passed the test.

“From talking with our consultants, they said this was relatively clean, which [in today’s age] can be a shock.”

What about user-generated content on social media?

Given most social media websites’ structure, with almost exclusively user-generated content streaming down a single page, Cart had mixed feelings on what that experience means for an individual with accessibility needs.

Part of the issue, Cart explained, was the pace of user-generated content being uploaded. Most people unfortunately aren’t engaging with descriptive tools when posting content to Facebook, for example.

“Users don’t mean to do this, but the first priority when they post a link is more about is this cool? Is this going to add value?” he noted.

Cart did separate the post feed from other aspects of Facebook such as its sidebar, which remains largely static between Facebook users. 

“Actual Facebook content, like the sidebar on the left…I would go out on a limb to say that there’s a very good chance that those are structurally sound.”

PDF woes

Text descriptions for photos are crucial, but oftentimes, they’re completely absent on PDF files, which are heavily used by restaurants to display their menus online.

If they do not have any alternate description and a user goes through the site with a screen reader, it will be difficult for them to identify what it is.

“Sometimes, when you go into more of the nitty-gritty and you take a look at different types of menus, that’s where [we see]…accessibility issues. A lot of PDFs sometimes can be finicky,” he explained, adding that colour also plays a role in creating effective websites. 

 Cart pointed out websites that put text on top of photos, which can make it difficult for someone with good eyesight to read. 

 “So that’s where you really want to avoid that type of setting,” he said.

AODA guidelines benefit everyone

It is important to note that often, features made to help those with disabilities turn into something that a majority of people enjoy using in daily life.

Proulx elaborated on the topic.

“Look at dark mode, that started out as an accommodation for people with visual problems. But it’s just such a great feature that now everyone wants it, right? I mean, captions are for deaf folks, but look at how often they get turned on in sports bars. Because you’re in a loud environment, you can’t hear it, and you want to see what’s being said,” he said.

He went on to say that many everyday features would not exist without people with disabilities.

Regarding how prepared Ontario is for the act deadline, Cart said he is fairly confident, and credited the recent pandemic as bringing attention to accessibility in the digital space.

“COVID has really shone a light on the importance of digital accessibility. And it’s really gotten those companies that didn’t have accessibility as a priority, it raised its importance. It became a matter of economic impact that would ultimately be hitting their pocket.”

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