Hi I’m Glen Farrelly, a PhD student University of Toronto’s iSchool. My background and interests are in designing and understanding digital user experiences. I believe that for everyone to be able to enjoy and benefit from digital media, it should be accessible to them. Accessibility, put simply, means that people can access – that is find and use – information or resources. I’m going to talk today about accessibility as it applies to the information systems that you’ve been discussing the past few weeks in this class. As future professionals with many of you likely working in Ontario, this topic is of particular importance as Ontario is one of the only jurisdictions that is legally requiring accessibility. I’ll talk more about this later.
Here’s an outline of the topics I will be covering.
Accessibility, in the context of today’s discussion, refers to the availability of resources & services to people regardless of their abilities People can be blocked by barriers based on: Vision, Hearing, Mobility or Motor Control, Cognitive Ability, and Mental Health. The problematic issue of accessibility particularly in regards to digital media has created a gulf known as the “disability divide”. The disability divide draws upon the concept of the digital divide, wherein the world is increasingly divided between those who have access to Internet and those who do not. As the ability to use the Internet is required for more aspects of life, this inaccessibility further prevents disabled people from greater societal participation
Ontario is really a leader in regulating accessibility across various commercial, organizational, and governmental sectors. The Ontario government through their Ontario’s Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation policy conceives of accessibility as publicly occurring within four domains: 1) Employment 2) Information and Communication 3) Transportation 4) Design of Public Spaces As this is an information systems class, we are going to focus on #2: information and communications. But it is good to know of the other domains as you’ll likely encounter these in other aspects of your life.
There have been different ways of conceptualizing disability. Earlier models conceived of disability as a medical issue that needed to be cured or treated or as charity cases that needed to be overseen and cared for. A contemporary and more egalitarian model is called the social model. [Ask class if anyone can define the social model] Within the social model of disability, disability is not considered an inherent condition of an individual, but is caused by societal structures that do not accommodate impairment and thus disables people. Throughout this lecture, I used the term “disabled people” – some might be more familiar with the term “people with disabilities” – but in line with the social model people don’t have inherent disabilities; instead they are disabled by artificial barriers. Disabilities may not be readily apparent. The number of people affected by accessibility is much greater when one considers that it pertains to those with permanent conditions, temporarily disabled (e.g., broken arms), situationally disabled (e.g. loud environments preventing hearing audio), and those with diminishing capacity (e.g., elderly). [Ask class if they can think of any example of situation or temporary disability.] Thus in various scenarios and environment - We can all be disabled.
To remove barriers, we must first realize they are there. There are different types of barriers, such as: [Ask class for an example for each.] - Information or Communication (e.g. TV without captioning) - Technology (e.g., doesn’t enable adaptive technology to work) - Attitudinal barriers (e.g., thinking disabled people are inferior) - Organizational barriers (e.g., hiring policies) - Physical (e.g., stairs) For this class, the first two are most applicable – although often all these barriers can exist at the same company or organization. Thus addressing one without the other may not result in the desired benefits.
Here are some examples of accessibility problems related to information systems and the Internet. Here are some examples of barriers in information systems or Internet content.
Approximately 1 in 7 Ontarians identified as disabled = 1.85 million people. That figure is expected to rise to 1 in 5 people by the year 2036 as our population ages. Social considerations - Studies reveal the tremendous impact Internet access can have on disabled people. Researchers have also studied homebound elderly and disabled people before and after getting Internet access, and they found using the Internet decreased feelings of isolation and depression. Also, online shopping was found to reduce mobility disability. Legal requirements – Ontario has a new law regarding accessibility, which I will discuss, but even before this law inaccessibility was considered prohibited discrimination under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Business reasons: increase reach or new markets. E.g, Good Grips utensils designed for arthritis but widely popular, curb cuts for wheelchairs but makes life easier for strollers/bikes, screen readers for blind people but great for motorists. Ancillary benefits: such as improving interoperability and performance, optimizing for search engines, and demonstrating corporate responsibility.
Inclusive Design and Responsive Design are terms you’ll encounter at iSchool and in your working career as they are becoming increasingly de facto standards. The terms, however, are often used interchangeably and incorrectly. Inclusive design is the term most often associated with making things accessible. However, developers fully using responsive design will develop in such a way that their content works for most, if not all, user devices – such as screen reader.
Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act or AODA was passed in 2005 with the goal of making Ontario accessible for people with disabilities by 2025. The regulations apply to people who live, work, or do business in Ontario. Where the rules will be most enforced will be in regards to businesses, government, and education. If you are working for a company now with over 20 employees by December of this year your company must submit to the Ontario government a report on how the company is working towards accessibility. There are other reports and actions due in the coming years. The Ontario government has a Accessibility Compliance Wizard that walks one through compliance issues with a calendar of key dates. If you aren’t living or working in Ontario, you may still encounter AODA or rules like it as Ontario is being observed by other provinces and countries as an exemplar. More jurisdictions are moving forward or considering similar legislation.
There are 3 ways to offer accessible content. [Ask class if they are familiar with each item.] 1) Assistive and adaptive technology changes the modality of one form to an accessible form. For example, screen reader software can read the contents of a webpage to a blind person. But even though tech continues to get more sophisticated there are still problems, for example screen readers cannot compensate for images that don’t have alternative text to describe it. 2) Automated conversion can be done by machines or computers in various ways. YouTube has free software to automatically caption user videos. Solutions like this may address the challenge of making the extreme long tail of online content more accessible but they still present barriers. For example, I’m dubious that auto captioning software will be able to compensate for poor audio levels, overlapping speech, or slang. Human development is probably the best way to make content more accessible. That is, the content creators build the content in ways that extend its functionality and flexibility. For example, describing the meaning of an image is best done by image creator.
As you are studying and working in various information fields, you will encounter accessibility in various different products and services.
Implementing accessibility can seem like a lot to do and may seem like it is difficult to know where to start. The first step should be knowing your audience or customers. Know what their needs are and then work to achieve this goal first. You can learn about your audience through informal data (e.g. customer service reports) or formal research via surveys or focus groups. Accessibility experts – are proliferating now, be careful. Hiring outside consultants who specialize in web accessibility can be a solution. Yet, with any field where a client is not able to judge the quality of an expert’s work, it is possible for experts to abuse their position. So check a consultant’s past work and references first.
In 1997, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced the formation of its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The WAI was a collaborative effort from industry, advocacy organizations, disability specialists, and academia. Their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was released in 1999 and updated into a second version 2008. It is the second version known as WCAG 2 that is in use today. Despite criticism, WCAG is the leading international standard and the basis of international policy and law, including US’ Section 508, AODA, and an ISO standard. I have the links to these at the end. If you will be developing hardware or software, IBM guidelines are among the most recognized. For those working with a specific disability group, such as autism or epilepsy, there are disability specific guidelines that go beyond the others.
There are various ways to make sure your content is accessible. Automated solutions - As the many techniques required to implement accessibility are scaled across the hundreds or thousands of webpages in a website for instance, it can become practically impossible to catch all accessibility errors and omissions. Testing software could allow practitioners to quickly and affordably test their entire website, reveal and correct errors, and thus improve accessibility. Expert testing – involves hiring a specialist to either test your site for you or to go over it with you in a meeting. The best solution is testing with your users over various abilities. Ultimately, some techniques cannot be tested by software and require human review with disabled users.
The above diagram is a model I developed. It highlights how all the components we have been talking about and others work together to help with the implementation and diffusion of accessibility, particularly within a website context.
Implementing accessibility may require new ways of programming and designing for many practitioners. Support material (e.g. instructional material, checklists, sample code, etc.) is therefore crucial. There are information resources, toolkits, events, and classes locally and in North America that help people deliver accessibility. Here are some examples.
As people increasingly integrate online activities into their lives, a digital, disability divide exists between those who can and cannot access online content. Alterations to web design and code can remove barriers that otherwise lock disabled people out of online participation. As information professionals it is up to us to do our best to remove the disability divide. For links to websites & concepts discussed, visit my Delicious bookmarks at the URL above.
Accessibility and Information Systems
by Glen Farrelly
University of Toronto
• Accessibility is availability of resources & services
to people regardless of their abilities
• Digital Divide and Disability Divide
• Areas of disability:
• Mobility & Motor Control
• Cognitive & Mental Health
Domains of Accessibility
2. Information and Communications
4. Design of public spaces
• Social model of disability
(compared to medical and charity models)
• Disabled people vs. people with disabilities
• Situational disabilities
• Temporary disabilities
• Disabilities can be invisible
Types of barriers:
1. Information or Communication
3. Attitudinal barriers
4. Organizational barriers
Info System Barriers
• Vital information in images only
• Menus or graphs using only colour for differences
• Fan-out menus that require precise control
• Tiny font size or locking in font size
• Not allowing cursor to be controlled by keyboard
Importance of Accessibility
• Social Considerations
• Legal Requirements
• Business Reasons
• Ancillary Benefits
Inclusive & Responsive Design
• Inclusive Design = "design that considers the full range
of human diversity with respect to ability, language,
culture, gender, age and other forms of human
• Responsive Design = "aimed at crafting sites to provide
an optimal viewing experience… a wide range of
devices from desktop computer monitors to mobile
Accessibility for Ontarians with
Disabilities Act (AODA)
• Goal is for an accessible Ontario by 2025
• Applies to people who live, work, or do business
• Companies with 20+ employees must submit
• Exemplar for other jurisdictions
Methods for Accessibility
Main ways to offer accessible content:
– Assistive Technology
– Automated Conversion
– Human Development
Accessibility in Information Systems
• Websites and e-Business portals
• Self-serve kiosks
• Mobile apps
• Communications (print, video, podcasts, in-person)
• Business software (purchased or custom built)
• Finding aids
Know Your Audience
• Informal data
• Research audience (via survey, focus groups,
• Many consultants specializing in this, but
check their credentials
• Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
–Four Principles: perceivable, operable,
• IBM Guidelines for Accessible Hardware & Software
• Disability specific guidelines
• Automated software
• Expert testing and walkthroughs
• User testing – the gold standard!