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The Constantly Changing Landscape of Accessibility 

Contributed by Joel Zimba, Special Projects Coordinator, MDTAP

For many years, most accessibility issues had to deal with whether one particular application or another would work properly with screen access software.  Every few years there would be the concern of how well things would work with a new operating system, but everything would shake out sooner or later.  This was back when most of the accessibility talk had to do with employment and education.  No one wondered how he/she would stream that night’s movie to their home theater system.

Then came the Internet.  Web Accessibility (capitalized, because it is an entity unto itself), became an issue of much wider concern.  There is still a sort of accessibility arms race going on among developers, corporations, standards bodies and legislatures.  Sometimes things seem better and then everything becomes more complex, or a new technology emerges which, after much wrangling, eventually becomes compatible with the existing accessibility infrastructure to one degree or another–PDF files, I’m looking at you.)

Mobile applications and of course their requisite accessibility are the new “fly in the ointment.”  Mobile traffic will overtake Web traffic in the near future, if it hasn’t already.  The Internet model of the first decade of the new century is swiftly passing.  App accessibility is not as clear cut as Web accessibility.  For one thing, most Web accessibility problems can be fixed with a bit of file tweaking and making sure the proper meta information is in place.  It gets a bit trickier with Javascript, but it is still a far cry from large-scale application development.  In general, apps really are islands unto themselves.  The Web browser is not the common denominator as it is with Web Accessibility issues.  Mobile applications must obey the accessibility standards provided by manufacturers in order to be guaranteed proper functionality.

Every week I read another article about how mobile technology is changing the lives of people with disabilities.  While many of the mobile applications work well and are fully accessible, there is no guarantee this is going to be the case for any app or for any version of that app.  Take for example the newest version of the iOS Facebook app.  In some ways it is more accessible than it’s predecessor.  It does have quirks, though these quirks are yet again different quirks from the previous version.  A glaring problem is the inability to browse your list of friends.  While the lettered sections are announced, the individual names are not.  This is probably a symptom of a non-standard control being used, which needs to be properly identified to the underlying accessibility framework.

Such problems are easily fixed by a knowledgeable developer.  It is probably comparable to adding the functionality into an existing application to allow it to communicate with a new database or over a new communication protocol.  There is little understanding of accessibility itself necessarily.  Of course testing and making certain trade-offs becomes necessary at some point.  The problem is that each environment is different and the skills necessary have more to do with understanding the system and proper coding practices than the published and well-documented Web Accessibility standards.

The conversation is jut more difficult.  Teaching an accessibility course to Android developers is going to be different from teaching these similar concepts to iOS developers.  Oh, and what about these new Windows phones?  Time will tell, though accessibility issues will doubtless be yet again different.

How do we deal with the problem right now?  So far, it comes down to user testing.  Before buying a new app or upgrading to a new version, you may want to check out mailing lists which discuss accessibility on your specific platform.  There are also websites dedicated to reviewing apps for accessibility.  For now, someone has to take the plunge.  On occasion, refunds are available when accessibility issues are encountered.  Many app developers have been surprisingly responsive about making their products more accessible.  They are to be commended.

This sounds like it might be frustrating, but not the end of the world.  Wait a moment though, is that your bank’s mobile app you just used to pay your electric bill?  Well, a recent update to the Bank of America site has broken accessibility.  Many of the controls are unlabelled, and the Bill Pay section is difficult if not impossible to use.  Let’s hope this changes sooner rather than later.

In the grand scheme of things, I would say the overall state of computer accessibility is better than it was ten years ago.  For example, the OSX operating system was completely inaccessible for several years.  Now, more often than not, any new application I try is 95% accessible.  I have come to expect it and it is surprising when things grind to a halt because I can’t actually use an application properly.

All of these issues will be with us for years to come.  The accessibility conversation will doubtless be entirely different in a couple of years.

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