May08,2012

A Look behind the Scenes – Part III: Website Accessibility Isn’t an Exact Science

Road sign with three posts - one with the word good, one with the word better and one with the word best

By Marc Seguin, System Analyst, Disability.gov

This is the third post in a multi-part series written by the Disability.gov team to help others learn about the importance of website accessibility and the best practices that are used on Disability.gov. For more information on the Section 508 standards and tools, please visit http://section508.gov/. You can also read Parts I & II of the series.

The Disability.gov team takes its responsibility to ensure the accessibility of the website very seriously. So you might be able to imagine how we felt seeing a tweet from a well respected accessibility specialist, Dennis Lembrée, indicating that we still had some work to do, and he planned to write blog post about some of the accessibility issues he discovered on the site. Dennis is an experienced Web developer who is heavily involved in the accessibility community. He is the founder and author of the Web Axe blog; the creator of Easy Chirp, an accessible platform for using Twitter; and promotes accessibility through social networks and presentations among other endeavors.

While we work hard to do our best, we know there is always room for improvement, and prefer to hear about any issues or concerns as soon as possible, so we can address them. Our goal is always to make the site as accessible and usable as possible for all people, with or without disabilities.

In one of the prior posts in this series, I mentioned that an overwhelming majority of accessibility testing can’t be done using automated tools alone. Manual testing by educated people is required if you want to be successful. However, even then, people who understand the importance of accessibility are not infallible. They make mistakes, overlook things and have off days. Guidelines can be open to interpretation and everyone is capable of having their talents limited by available time and energy. Two people using the exact same Section 508 standards and/or WCAG criterion may end up with different determinations of whether something is considered compliant or not. 

Thus accessibility and usability testing is a never ending process. It is not something that you can complete just once on a living, breathing website, check a box that it is done and forget about it.

The Disability.gov team learned long ago that many in the accessibility “Tribe” will often go out of their way to help others improve the quality of their work for the benefit of everyone. If you are seeking to do accessibility right, looking to learn and willing to work, I can almost guarantee you that you can find others to help you on your quest.

Dennis wrote up an excellent post titled “Suggestions for the new Disability.gov,” highlighting some areas where Disability.gov could use improvement in terms of accessibility, as well as noting some techniques being used on the site that were well. It was fair and welcomed feedback that we are utilizing to increase the accessibility of the site. I would recommend that you give it a read and check out some of the other educational posts and podcasts found on Web Axe.

One of my favorite ways to learn and keep up-to-date with what’s new in the accessibility world is through Twitter. Dennis visited Disability.gov because of something that he saw on Twitter and even before he emailed us about his findings, we knew about it because he posted about them on Twitter. One of the faults sometimes attributed to government is that it can be slow to react. In the current era of social media, where information can be crowd sourced and exchanged from all corners of the globe, both the federal and private sector can take advantage of the ability to share accessibility knowledge and best practices.

In my last post, I mentioned that I follow people on social media channels who are sharing accessibility information freely and often.  Secretary of State Clinton wrote in her book that “it takes a village” to best provide for our children.  My experience is that it will take the accessibility “Tribe” to fight for and improve the Web’s accessibility.

We will continue to work to improve both the accessibility and usability of Disability.gov. A release went out earlier this week that corrected many of the issues Dennis identified, and additional changes are in the works for the coming weeks. We are thankful for Dennis’ insight and feedback, and will continue to respond to his and any other comments or suggestions for ways to make Disability.gov the best site it can be.

For More Information:

There are a number of quality accessibility folks out there, but here is a sampling of some that I follow on Twitter to stay educated:

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