Sadly, October has come to an end. Halloween was ruined by rain, snow, and high winds; and my favorite month of the year is now eleven months away again.
But fear not! November is upon us, and so to is National Novel Writing Month. If you missed my latest post about it: “The Importance of Website Accessibility in an Increasingly Digital Society”, Revisited, I have decided to dedicate the month of November to continuing my research into Web Accessibility, and continue with my research paper, in hopes of making it more complete than I feel my “final draft” ended up being.
To start the month, I will be revisiting a paper by Elizabeth Sheerin, and published in the St. John’s Law Review in 2018: Inaccessible Websites Are Discriminating Against the Blind: Why Courts, Websites, and the Blind Are Looking to the Department of Justice for Guidance. The paper was one of the first that I came across when initially conducting my research over the summer. However, due to my constricted timeline, and need for additional sources, I admit I wasn’t able to take the time I should have to read the paper thoroughly. It did, however, bring to light for me some issues that I wasn’t consciously aware of. In the paper, Sheerin describes the case of a blind man who tried utilizing a new online prescription refill service recently launched by his local pharmacy. The man was excited to try the new feature, since when he visited the pharmacy in person he found the associates to be rude, and viewed the need for him to list his prescriptions aloud to be invasive. Unfortunately, this gentleman was not able to utilize the service; the pharmacy did not develop the application with accessibility in mind.
While I understand that there are people in the world who live with visual impairments, I have never had to deal with any conditions personally. When I first started learning about websites and the internet (we’re talking elementary school age), I never gave a second thought to how someone who was blind, or otherwise differently abled, would be able to use a computer, and specifically access the web, in the same way I was able to. I assume I just thought they couldn’t – if you can’t see a computer, why would you use one? I am not the only one who has thought this. Thankfully, the more I learned about the web, and specifically web development, the more interested I became in accessibility, and the technologies available to help assist those who need it.
Still, it wasn’t until reading Sheerin’s paper, and this real-world example of a man who was actually negatively affected by a company’s decision to forego making accessibility a priority, that things really started to click. I know how to develop things in an accessible way, I understand how to test what I’ve developed to ensure compatibility with technologies like screen readers, but I guess I had never really been exposed to a real-world use case, and the negative consequences that a lack of accessibility could have. I certainly would have advocated for the prescription refill service to be developed in an accessible way, but my answer for “why do we need to do that?” would have been limited to “so users with disabilities can have a good experience with the application”; I never would have been able to say “imagine being blind, and having to physically make your way to the pharmacy, have store associates treat you unkindly, and then have to relay what could be incredibly personal details about your medications, for anyone to overhear, all because a service meant to make prescription refills more convenient for pharmacy customers decided to completely ignore a demographic, to which you happen to belong”. Being able to tell a story, and put some humanity behind the decision to develop accessibly really makes a difference – especially when it comes to selling the idea to stakeholders who are looking to get the job done as quickly as possible, and for as little money as possible.
This example alone got me to think about how business websites are regulated – as in, they’re not. So long as a business is not involved in the federal government or education, there really is no hard and fast rule about whether a site is required to be accessible, or to what degree. It was at that point, sitting in my office, reading through the paper, and this man’s story, that I realized this is unacceptable to me. If you’re a legally recognized business – as in, you have an EIN and pay taxes to the government, and are not just a hobby business selling lemonade out of your driveway – then I truly believe that your company’s official website should be required to meet certain accessibility standards.
My goals for this month – and until I feel I’m done with this research, really – are to review past and current legislation relating to website accessibility, as well as where current legislators stand on this issue; to review court cases, and their ultimate verdicts; and to make a case as to why I believe businesses should be burdened with further regulation, to ensure a consistent online experience for users of all ability levels.
I have considered eventually submitting my finished paper for publication. While I still think this could be an interesting avenue to pursue, I am hoping that by the time I have completed my research and writing, that I will have also completed the new theme I am building for my website. While these two things don’t seem related, one feature I am planning to build into my theme is a section to host documents that visitors can download and read for themselves. So, if nothing else, I will be putting my finished paper up online in some capacity, for anyone who wants to to read.
The world won’t change overnight. While I do truly believe the A11y community is moving the needle in the right direction, it never hurts to add more voices to the cause. My ultimate goal is to spread awareness about website accessibility, and why it is such a big deal, and what any average person who shares my beliefs and concerns can do to help the cause. I’m hoping that by compiling countless hours of research and making that available for anyone to read and share, that people who may not have previously been aware of the issue of inaccessibility can have a light shed upon it, and realize that action needs to be taken – representatives need to be called, businesses need to have pressure put on them, and those who are fighting to further the cause need to be supported.
Thank you for joining me on this journey. If you have any resources that you want to send my way, please feel free to @ me on Twitter! Here’s to a successful NaNoWriMo!