Issues compounding issues.

I make no secret I’m interested in (and work in) web accessibility. However, a recent conversation has also led me to realise: there are problems in making accessibility information accessible.

Some of this is because “web accessibility” involves the web. This seems obvious, but keep in mind multiple people can touch a website: there may be an intern or student in charge of a website, or a harried summer lawn care company trying to figure out their first site. They do not necessarily know the ins and outs of JavaScript or the particularities of screen readers, and might not have the time to learn how to code, either. Information on implementing accessibility techniques, as well, may use language particular to developers or refer to specialised documentation. Information is typically presented without context, and so a user – or someone new to accessibility otherwise – may not grasp the situations where accessibility may be pain points. It is much easier to imagine a user – let’s call her Nicole – at a desk, trying to find out how to reserve a hotel room that can accommodate a wheelchair/scooter, and figure out the steps she would need to do that task and test from there, than to read vaguely phrased statements about navigation and rates of flickering no more than 3 times per second.

The wider field to accessibility, user experience design, likewise has some issues: learning about UX design and best practices often is overwhelming for the person new to it, and is costly as well. If the person has a company who understands the value of UX, a case can be made for training: if the person works freelance, is a contractor, or the company hasn’t realised the importance of designing with user experience in mind from the start, training is out of the reach for many people starting in the field. And while accessibility – in the sense of making the web more inclusive to the users who have disabilities – is something that should be designed for, many people with disabilities live in poverty. In the US, if someone receives SSDI disability payments, they are often limited to what assets they can declare. Assets like a car or a house are often exempt, but as the policies stand, a computer is deemed not as necessary (…somehow, unlike a car…) and counts towards those assets.

A computer ranges in cost, but to give some idea here:

  • Computer: 500 – 1,000 USD, or more;
  • Screen reader: choice of open-source screen reader, which requires some tinkering, may not be updated, etc (but free), or something like the JAWS screen reader – which, at retail, is 1,000 USD for one license.
  • Headphones: again, cost varies;

…if a person’s total assets cannot be more than 2,000 USD, this setup – just to allow for tasks like filing one’s taxes electronically, something many people assume – already is dangerously close to surpassing that limit.

Of course not every solution will be the best for every possible condition. Questions of technology and poverty are still ongoing, and systemic biases – who has the technology, who can obtain the technology. But ironically, web accessibility is often not easily accessible, even to people without disabilities.