Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Accessible design and the law: a personal vision

Brenda Rotzoll with editor Bob Mutter at a 2013 Chicago Sun-Times alumni dinner.

Web accessibility law is still sketchy but best-practice guidelines are clear, and users are your co-workers.

Without realizing it, I watched one of my co-workers go blind.

These things can happen slowly. Brenda Rotzoll was quite nearsighted as a Chicago Sun-Times feature writer. She never gave up her big 1990s-style glasses, and in a newsroom if you're not wearing glasses chances are you have contact lenses. As a reporter in the field, Brenda would take notes on a laptop computer. That was a new practice, and more reliable for her. One reason was that she was developing cataracts.

After surgery, Brenda was diagnosed with degenerative myopia. Her peripheral vision was good, but straightaway it was fuzzy. About 2 percent of the population has this severe form of nearsightedness, and the Macula Vision Research Foundation says it's the leading cause of blindness in adults 50 and older.

A few years after the diagnosis, Brenda was legally blind. She adopted special equipment for work, but impaired vision did not stop her; she had become the local expert on the Asian long-horned beetle, the inch-long insects that were infesting trees across the city.

These days special computers are no longer necessary to resolve many vision problems, or for that matter hearing or mobility issues. Anyone can change their computer's font size, colors and contrast, display closed captions or set up keybord shortcuts. Siri will read your email aloud.

When I design websites, I take into account how people use these settings. In fact, it's the law. The Justice Department views websites as public accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and lawsuits over ADA web compliance are on the rise.

One case worth watching involves the Winn-Dixie grocery chain. A blind plaintiff in Florida claims he couldn't shop on its website. The Justice Department argues that this would be covered by the ADA even if Winn-Dixie weren't a brick-and-mortar chain. But that's not settled law; the 9th Circuit rejected that argument in a case against eBay.

The Americans With Disabilities Act has been law since 1990, yet the Department of Justice has given very little guidance on how it should work for websites. For instance, the law mandates certain state and local government services, but last year the feds shelved plans to issue regulations for the web. It wanted another round of public comment. The government's rules for .gov sites are only now falling into place. They may become the de facto standard not only for governments, but also for corporations who need more legal certainty.

The government is working from the open Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG. Chicago and other cities have Meetup groups devoted to the subject. Designers can follow the hashtag #a11y. Those are the first and last letters in "accessibility," with a placeholder for the 11 characters in between.

For the most part, the guidelines are common sense: Follow a logical structure, use descriptive labels and back up visuals with text. These are familiar ideas from search engine optimization. I never liked using SEO to game the system, especially a system like the mysterious algorithm that changes without notice. But I have no reservatons following best practices for SEO. If a machine can find the important things, so will everyone else.

The same logic applies to accessibility. Utah State surveys people who use software to read what's on their screen, and only 64 percent are blind. Many have more modest vision issues. Some find spoken text easier to understand. Others want to get things done while they're jogging or driving.

Brenda's retired to Wisconsin, and we meet every few years for newsroom reunions. I like the idea that I'm designing for her. But really I'm designing for everyone.

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