Making the internet more accessible

Toyer Adams, quality assurance (QA) expert at Black Beard Technology, explains how developers have failed to create an accessible environment online with website design that excludes some people with disabilities.

Although the worldwide web has been lauded as a great equaliser that provides unparalleled access to information and opportunities, it is, in fact, an unwelcoming place for people with disabilities. As it stands, a great number of websites don’t cater for people with visual and hearing disabilities.

Tellingly, a 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that only 40 percent of people with disabilities in the United States feel comfortable using the internet compared with 80 percent of able-bodied users. In the United Kingdom, reports have indicated that less than 30 percent of people with disabilities go online.

While there are no similar reports available locally, Stats South Africa has indicated that more than four million people have a disability. By ignoring web accessibility, designers and developers are excluding a significant percentage of the local (and global) population.

“It’s a crime that the most versatile device on the planet, the computer, has not adapted well to people who need help, who need assistive technology,” commented Vint Cerf, who is often called “the father of the internet”, in a 2017 interview with the media website CNET. “It’s almost criminal that programmers have not had their feet held to the fire to build interfaces that are accommodating for people with vision, hearing or motor difficulties.”

Recognised as one of the designers of the architecture for the internet in the early 1970s, Cerf is hearing-impaired. He now contributes to the People Centered Internet – a group he cofounded.

As Cerf and others have pointed out, the inclination to create flashy websites, often with pressure to deliver under tight deadlines, has pushed web accessibility to the periphery. Indeed, as developers race to deliver on time, accessibility is a frequent and easy casualty.

To tackle the existing barriers to web accessibility, businesses should embrace a culture of inclusion. Arguably, the push for inclusion online needs to be driven by developers and web designers, as they are the ones who will learn and implement the correct tools and platforms.

Large established tech companies such as Microsoft understand the importance of web accessibility and are retrofitting certain sites. In South Africa, however, few companies have any awareness of the challenges.

As a startup that has prioritised web accessibility across all projects and web designs, Black Beard Technology has garnered key insights and learnings. Accessibility starts at the very beginning. Thus we interrogate the designs to make sure they meet the basic requirements.

Without a doubt, tackling web accessibility requires upskilling teams in certain areas and creating best practices for others who follow. Success requires developing a greater understanding of the challenges faced by people with disabilities and then applying that to making the web an easy and enjoyable place to navigate.

Looking ahead, a further challenge will be tackling the issues affecting people who rely on accessibility tools. As startups and companies prioritise innovation and disruption within their sectors, it is just as critical to prioritise inclusion – and to ensure that technology fulfils its promise of upliftment for everyone.

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