Making web accessibility accessible

October 26th, 2012  by Anna Starasts    3 Comments    Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I admit when I first saw the accessibility themed October 22 Girl Geeks Toronto event I had “usability” in mind. Turns out there’s a lot of confusion between accessibility and usability but here’s the difference:

Accessibility means that all users can access the content whereas usability is about ensuring that with access the information is presented in an efficient and intuitive way.

The evening’s three speakers – a lawyer, a designer and a blind accessibility expert – in my opinion, covered the range between accessibility and usability by providing information about the legal requirements, web best practices and insights based on first-hand experience.

Accessibility and the law

First up was lawyer Maureen McKay of McKay Legal who walked us through the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

The act came into effect January 1, 2012 for all businesses with one or more employees. It’s the first of its kind in Canada, likely to be followed by other jurisdictions over the next few years.

To help demonstrate the need for enforcement, McKay spoke about the recent example of Bede Vanderhost, a teenager with Down syndrome who was kicked off of an American Airlines flight because he was considered a security risk.

See this video for more about Bede Vanderhost:

Bede Vanderhost vido

The AODA speaks to four core principles to empower individuals like Vanderhost: independence, dignity, integration and equality of opportunity.

According to the Government of Ontario’s site, businesses must do the following to comply:

  • Create a plan
  • Train staff (for business to consumer or business to business contact)
  • Put it on paper (i.e. write a policy)
  • Inform them how you’re doing

A critical component outlined by McKay was the need for all organizations to have a feedback mechanism to communicate with the public. She also outlined that there are special requirements for organizations with 20 or more employees and that fines can be up to $100,000 per day for ignoring the legislation.

Accessibility and the web

Next up was independent professional web designer and WCAG 2.0 (W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) advocate Sandy Feldman. In a few years, all net and websites within Ontario will also need to be compliant.

An unexpected benefit of building accessible sites is that it makes Google happy because accessibility means adding titles, headers and links that make sense out of context. Feldman also commented that compliant sites work with all types of technology, as outlined in their P-O-U-R principles:

  • Perceivable – people know the content site is there
  • Operable – accessible using any technology
  • Understandable – needs to make sense
  • Robust – it can’t fall apart or crash

So, how do you know if your website is WCAG compliant? Feldman advises to

Accessibility and the user

The night finished off with digital accessibility consultant from the CNIB Martin Courcelles (@mcourcel and blog).

Courcelles spoke about how screen readers will quickly help a user identify a bad page as one that has

  • No headings so a reader can’t navigate it quickly
  • A lot of improperly identified graphics
  • Long descriptions for graphics

His biggest pet peeve is when it says “click here” on a webpage with no obvious action for the screen reader.

Courcelles also offered a before and after comparison of a sample website that was inaccessible that became accessible.

Other sites he offered as good examples of accessibility were the CNIB and the CBC.

To get a sense of desktop accessibility, he also encourages users to checkout an open source screen reader for the Microsoft Windows operating system called NVDA.

Diane Begin

Diane Bégin @dibegin works as a senior consultant at Thornley Fallis. She’s worked in communications in Alberta since the late 90s where she experimented and developed a passion for social media. She’s called Toronto home since 2011. Bégin is a geek for communications theory and blogs at

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