One in every eight Georgians – more than 12 percent – identifies as having a disability. Whether it’s a physical or learning disability, it can be difficult for those people trying to access the internet.
While a 1998 law known as Section 508 requires the federal government to make information technology accessible for everyone on all platforms, states don’t have the same legal responsibility.
Despite that, developers with the state of Georgia have been redesigning its websites to make it a little easier for people with disabilities to access information.
“States at this point are not really required to be accessible or to meet any standard like the federal websites are," said Nikhil Deshpande, director of GeorgiaGov Interactiv, which oversees Georgia’s website and publishing platforms. "But this is something within Georgia, we decided we wanted to do.”
A Blind Experience
Here’s how a blind person using assistive technology like a screen reader and keyboard would experience Georgia.gov.
As a beginner:
As an advanced user:
Georgia.gov is coded so a screen reader makes sense for people with visual impairments and other disabilities. The fonts are larger, there’s a strong color contrast and the links and photos are descriptive.
John Rempel, a quality control and training specialist, performed audits of the state's website at the AMAC Accessibility Solutions and Research Center at Georgia Tech.
“We’re looking at a larger senior population. The need for accessibility is greater than it’s ever been,” Rempel said. “We’re all going to have some disability at some point in our lives – whether it’s a temporary disability like a sprained or broken arm or reduced vision as we get older, reduced hearing.”
Rempel has low vision, so changes he recommends to state agencies and universities benefit him personally. He said AMAC recently grew to 50 employees and has a growing international clientele.
“The need for accessibility is greater than it’s ever been,” Rempel said. “I think the business community is starting to realize that there’s a profit share here that they’re missing out on as well. It’s not only the right thing to do but also profitable thing to do.”
Barriers To Access
Rempel said many websites are not very accessible. He shows off a link on a website that ends in “/2853299570343119981.”
“It’s a series of numbers, and that might not make a lot of sense for a person who’s blind accessing it using a screen reader,” Rempel said.
Part of the problem with making sites more accessible, Rempel said, is that it’s hard to tell when they’re not.
“It’s very challenging to determine whether a website is really truly accessible unless you’re using similar tools that people with disabilities use,” Rempel said. “For example you would never know that an image doesn’t have an alternative tag that’s read by a screen reader unless you’re actually using a screen reader.”
Alternative tags are like audio captions that describe a picture on a website.
Kendra Skeene, director of product at GeorgiaGov Interactive, said adding things like alternative tags is actually a simple task, but most developers often only have the general user in mind.
“They’re thinking of how they experience a website and that must be how everybody experiences a website,” Skeene said. “And I’ve even heard people say, ‘Well if they can’t see my advertisement, then I don’t need them on my site.’ Or this idea that someone can have someone else browse a website for them. They’re cutting off a huge percentage of people. That’s pretty short-sighted.”
It could also be illegal.
Because of the Section 508 amendment to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, all federal government websites have to be accessible. But even private companies and states can be forced to comply through lawsuits.
Rempel said these lawsuits rely on the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We think about physical accessibility: we’ve got the wheelchair ramps and railings, braille signage on elevators and whatnot,” Rempel said. “And although the ADA actually was enforced prior to the internet even having been created, the Department of Justice is quite actively taking the ADA and applying that in the electronic arena as well.”
So far, the state has upgraded more than half of the 130 state agencies websites to federal standards. And, last fall, Deshpande’s team won a national accessibility award for Georgia.gov.
“Eighty percent of what you would do to make a website accessible is not hard,” Skeene said. “If you have the education of ‘Hey, if I make this choice, it’s accessible to a wider range of people.’ It’s within reach, right?
"And so that's one thing we've been focused on. Making sure our team is educated – like if I make this color a little darker it’s going to make a huge impact.”
Many of the state of Georgia's websites now have a sharper look, filled with larger font sizes, descriptive headings, strong color contrast and cleaner drop-down menus. This makes it easier for a person with disabilities to navigate information using a screen reader.
Skeene said after the design stage, retrofits can become more time- and labor-intensive, but it’s mostly simple changes involved in increasing accessibility.
“On the code side, we did a lot of adjusting on how links are read off to people with a screen reader so they don’t get a whole list of things that just say ‘read more,’ ‘read more,’ ‘read more,’” Skeene said. “Well, read more, what?”
The state’s web team is now looking to improving accessibility on smartphones of its mobile apps and sites.