Jason King was born visually impaired and is now fully blind. He is among the 16 million Canadians navigating the internet while living with vision loss and other disabilities. As the global pandemic forces organizations to adopt e-commerce and remote work, the elephant in the virtual room around digital accessibility remains.
In Ontario, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) highlights ways Ontario businesses can be more accessible for the 2.6 million Ontarians living with disabilities, including adhering to the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0 Level AA).
The deadline to implement these standards was January 2021. That’s been extended to June 30, 2021, meaning thousands of Ontario public, private, and non-profit organizations with 20 or more employees could face fines up to $100,000 per day if they fail to meet web accessibility guidelines.
King represents the Council For Persons with Disabilities in Peterborough. He says the new guidelines and fines are a hopeful push to legitimize the importance of digital accessibility in a booming internet economy.
“My hope has always been that when it came to the Accessibility Act, that we would actually have some teeth behind some of these rules of engagement,” he said, adding it’s getting people to start thinking in the right direction.
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Ottawa website production company Craft&Crew is one example of a company heading towards improving digital accessibility.
“The pandemic has exposed how heavily we rely on the internet in our social, private and professional lives, and lack of accessibility for individuals living with disabilities severely compromises how they can participate in the community, economy and job market,” said Dave Hale, founder and partner of Craft&Crew.
For Hale, breaking the stigma that digital accessibility is a trade-off with engaging aesthetics and design is top of mind.
“There’s kind of a belief that to design accessible digital products means that it’s coming at the cost of good modern design practices,” Hale explained. “Look no further than Canada.ca. It’s a site that is pretty well performing in terms of accessibility for all Canadians, but it very much lacks visual appeal.”
Small details make a big difference
Hale highlights two prominent factors that can influence digital accessibility. Number one is contrast ratio, where placing colours like the light blue text on a light gray background can be difficult for someone to see. Oftentimes, there are terrible colour ratios on call-to-action buttons to contact the business, buy a product, invest in a service, he says.
Next, Hale stresses the importance of alternative text. When screen readers navigate an image, there is no text for them to describe the photo. He says alternative text is important to function as descriptive text on websites, similar to how TV shows with closed captioning describe what is happening.
“If those images are not properly alt texted or have alternative texts present, a screen reader is not going to pick up what that is, and you might totally miss the information or the content altogether,” says Hale.
King agrees with Hale’s comments and adds that a large issue is the inability to keep up with software changes. “Website developers aren’t working in congruence with accessibility in mind,” he noted.
Microsoft Edge, for example, remains highly inaccessible, King says. “We’re still trying to figure out some of the fixes for that. But unless you use Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge is almost completely unacceptable.”
Many websites are not accessible with screen readers that read vertically. For a website like Eventbrite, King says there is a lot of useful information on screen. But if he’s registering for an event, there are combo boxes, and their edit fields aren’t activated to work properly with screen reader software.
King says the prominence of digital accessibility has been pushed to the back for many years because many developers and businesses haven’t had exposure to someone with a disability.
“If you don’t have a significant other or someone in your life that lives with a disability, and you’ve never been exposed to a disability, you can’t necessarily understand the reasons behind the need for accessibility,” he explained.
Despite this, King says it’s vital for digital accessibility to be top of mind across organizations. COVID-19 has granted the ability for persons with disabilities to work from home and seek further opportunities in the future, but the work shouldn’t stop there.
King urges companies to start with universal design in mind rather than adopting them later down the road.
“If you’re going to design a new application, if you’re going to create a new web page, instead of building it, and then going back and making it accessible, make it accessible from the immediate start. It’s easier, it’s faster, and it’s cheaper,” he concluded.