Perkins Access Makes Improving Digital Accessibility Easier than Ever

For most people who log onto the Internet every day, the accessibility of a webpage is one of the last things that enters their minds. If you aren't blind or deaf, or don't have a disability such as a mobility disorder that makes it difficult to navigate webpages with a mouse, chances are that the web is optimized for your use and is easy to navigate. However, for many web users with disabilities, the lack of accessibility of webpages is a problem that inhibits their fundamental ability to access information on the web. For many companies, designing websites with disabled customers and users in mind isn't on their radar.

"Companies need to ingrain accessibility design in their policies and procedures just like they do IT security," says Bill Oates, the Vice President of Perkins Solutions. Perkins Solutions is the technology and services branch of Perkins School for the Blind, the oldest school for the blind in the United States. The decision to launch Perkins Access came last year after evaluating their ability to educate companies on their expertise of accessibility. "Perkins School for the Blind has been building Braillers since the 1950s, and has been involved in assistive tech for a number of years. Early last year, we thought about how we could educate people, and engaged universities including Harvard and Notre Dame to learn how to refine and deliver this accessibility service."

As for Bill, he not only has experience through his work at Perkins, but also previously as the CIO of the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where improving web accessibility was one of the concerns he prioritized.

The creation of Perkins Access was for good reason, as it turns out that many mainstream websites are still not accessible to disabled users. "When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was created 25 years ago, it was created before websites [were in mainstream use]," explained Bill. Although federal regulations on web accessibility are being debated, he said that those who are pushing for greater accessibility shouldn't wait for those regulations to come down to advocate for these vital changes.

A review by Perkins Solutions, announced on February 23, found that 90 percent of 20 top colleges and universities ranked by U.S News and World Report "failed to meet some of the guidelines that make websites accessible to disabled users." The review was performed on heavily trafficked pages on the universities' websites, such as admissions, dining, virtual tours, and event pages.

What do gaps in accessibility mean for users with disabilities, on these particular websites and on the greater Web? It means that a variety of users with a number of disabilities have difficulty accessing Web information. "For blind folks who use screen readers, when they go to websites that don't have alt text behind images, they get just an image file number instead of a description of the image," explained Bill. "They can also face cumbersome navigation issues on a page when there is no ability to use skip navigation and headers." There are also a number of issues that affect users with other needs, such as a lack of closed captioning on videos for people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, or websites that are not compatible with keyboard-only navigation for those with disabilities affecting fine motor skills.

The lack of accessibility has serious implications that extend beyond simply reading the news or logging on to social media. Bill used the example of employment websites to illustrate these issues, as most companies have moved to web-based applications. "An organization decides that you're only able to fill out an employment application electronically, and the website isn't accessible. Then [disabled] applicants are forced to go down a separate path [from non-disabled users], taking a phone or snail mail application." The implications of this range from making the application process more time- and effort-consuming, to separating out employees with disabilities from the regular stream of applicants.

For universities, there is also an issue with the fact that coursework is moving into the online environment. "Online learning and online courseware in education may not be accessible. When so much is reliant on digital products, you have to pay attention to accessibility."

However, according to Bill and the folks at Perkins Solutions, these serious problems have fairly simple fixes. "All of these issues are addressed by the WCAG standards," noted Bill, referencing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines established by the World Wide Web Consortium. "It's easy to go in very quickly and assess them." With all of their years in working on accessible tech, experts at Perkins School for the Blind are familiar with remediating these challenges. In fact, many of the experts at Perkins are users of accessible technology due to blindness or other disabilities. "We know what the guidelines are and how to fix these things." Bill says that these assessments help Perkins Solutions to build a list of issues that companies must remediate, but once these issues are addressed, these companies can make sure that accessibility is considered in their designs going forward.

In the future, Bill and other advocates of web accessibility hope that companies will start incorporating accessibility early in the design stages of a website. When I asked him what he would see as the most pressing, immediate change that web developers and designers could make to improve accessibility, he said that "[they should] think about this at the early design stage, as they are developing user experiences and thinking about delivering a service [to their customers]. They should look at design philosophy and incorporate accessibility as a key concept of design. We need to bring the disabled into the conversation, bring in those who are using assistive tech to provide input. There is no reason organizations should not be thinking about this upfront."