How web developers are working to make the internet more accessible for all

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May 11, 2019
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How web developers are working to make the internet more accessible for all

An estimated 15% of the world's population lives with a disability of some kind, according to The World Bank. For this group of people across the globe, disability rights and inclusivity are not an abstract social issue, but a pressing concern that impacts everyday life. In recent years, there has been progress in terms of making the world more accessible for all disabled people. In the 1990s, the Americans with Disabilities Act established crucial civil rights guarantees and discrimination protection, and in 2007, the signing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities marked a global step forward. Of course, there's still much to be done, and that includes bringing accessibility to the land of memes and Twitter wars. That's right; we're talking about the internet.

Web accessibility is about making the internet, as well as mobile apps, a place that disabled people can use, understand, and navigate with ease. Accessible websites and apps are designed so as not to exclude anyone with any type of impairment, whether that be visual, hearing, motor, cognitive, or age-related. While everyone who creates online content plays a role in web accessibility, much of the responsibility lies with web developers, the people coding and creating the web and related applications.

How can a vast space such as the internet be made usable, accessible, and comprehensible for all people? Things aren't perfect yet—a Pew Research study found that young disabled people are less likely to own a computer than able-bodied people of the same age, and many sites out there don't meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. But change is happening all the time, and web developers around the world are working on rewriting the web for the better.

Stacker performed extensive research to learn about the most exciting and important ways in which web developers are making the internet more accessible for all, pulling data and information from authoritative news and industry reports on web accessibility. Read on to find out why web developers care about color, how text hidden in an image can help with accessibility, and so much more.

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Adding and using accessibility checkers

One of the major issues with creating accessible sites is not time, price, or ability, but rather a lack of awareness. Developers such as those at Microsoft are working to change this; Microsoft Office includes an Accessibility Checker, and when this feature is used on a document, it both generates a list of potential accessibility issues (in accordance with international standards) and offers solutions. Many web developers use similar accessibility-checking features when creating or updating sites, to ensure that all guidelines and standards are met.

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Including alternate text for images

Alternative text is essentially a written version of non-textual content, which allows people with visual or cognitive disabilities to get the full experience of a given page or site. Web developers working in HTML often add alternative text to images, which gives tools like screen readers (a device that can speak the content of a site) a script; that way, someone who may not be able to see or understand an image can instead receive an auditory explanation. While not all sites are perfect when it comes to this, many, like the New York Times, CNN, and NPR, have alt text attached to the majority of their graphics.

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Adding audio descriptions to video content

For blind or partially sighted people, watching TV and movies can be a challenging experience—even if they're able to hear the dialogue, they may miss out on important visual cues that add to or impact the story. That's why web developers for various platforms are working to add “audio descriptions,” which are verbal explanations included in a video's soundtrack, designed to explain exactly what's happening on screen. Netflix, for example, entered into an agreement with the American Council for the blind in 2016, under which the streaming service pledged on adding audio descriptions for many of its most popular shows and films.

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Francisclarke // Wikimedia Commons

Prioritizing keyboard access and compatibility

For those with disabilities that make the use of hands limited or impossible, and for visually or cognitively disabled people, a keyboard or some form of similar modified technology (as opposed to a mouse or trackpad) is often the best way to navigate the internet. Just like someone using a trackpad needs the cursor to indicate where the mouse is on the screen, someone using a keyboard needs an indicator of which onscreen element the keyboard is focused on; moreover, they need to be able to move through the site swiftly and easily without a mouse. There are now plenty of online resources, like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the University of Washington, geared toward web developers looking to make all sites fully keyboard compatible.

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Using headings

Headings, the larger and often bolder pieces of text that indicate the different sections and subsections on a page, are a prominent part of web accessibility. Clear, visually striking headings can be helpful to those with cognitive disabilities. For internet users relying on screen readers, headings can make a page much quicker and easier to use. In fact, a 2017 WebAIM study showed that 67.5% of screen reader users prefer to use page headings when moving through a site. The same study found that reliance on headings has increased significantly since 2008, showing that more and more web developers are using proper coding to ensure easy site navigation via headings.

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Improving accessibility for mobile internet

Cell phones have come a long way since the early 2000s (sorry, Razr and Blackberry), and can now perform many of the same functions as a computer. In the field of web development, however, this has raised the question of how to make the internet accessible—not only on a laptop but also on a phone or tablet—so that able-bodied and disabled users alike can enjoy all a smartphone has to offer. Luckily, web developers are on it, and a Wireless RERC report comparing mobile web accessibility from 2015 and 2017 showed marked improvement in areas like screen reader access, braille access, and voice features.

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Using color the right way

While some may enjoy a site full of splashy colors, certain color combinations, as well as the use of color alone to convey information, can prove problematic for many users. Colorblind users have no way of distinguishing between two pieces of information if color is the sole difference, and poor color contrast on a site overall can make navigation impossible for those with low vision or age-related vision loss. To combat this, web developers have generated sites like Colorsafe and Contrast Ratio, which can test a site's color accessibility and offer stronger alternatives.

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Avoiding and offering opt-outs of autoplay media

Gone are the MySpace glory days, when a visitor to your page would immediately be greeted by a song, but existing sites with autoplay media can pose a problem for many people. Those using a screen reader may struggle to figure out how to turn off an autoplay song or video, while some with cognitive disabilities could be frightened by a sudden loud noise, or struggle to absorb information on an autoplay slideshow quickly enough. Web developers are increasingly aware of this issue, and browsers like Chrome and Firefox now offer the ability to shut off autoplay entirely.

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Including transcripts and closed captions

One in 20 Americans is deaf or hard of hearing, which means that for 5% of the population, watching TV, movies, or online video requires closed captioning or transcripts. With video content more ubiquitous than ever before, closed captioning requirements are changing: In 2011, the National Association with the Deaf reached an agreement with Netflix, wherein the streaming service would have to caption the entirety of its catalog by 2014. A particularly strong example comes from the developers at TED, who include interactive transcripts, where the words are highlighted as the person in the video says them, for almost all of their filmed content.

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Sebastien.delorme // Wikimedia Commons

Introducing accessible coding initiatives

The primary drive of web accessibility is to make sure all people are able to freely and easily use the internet, but what about giving all people the chance to actually create the internet? Coding and web development jobs are ever on the rise, and great strides have been made in making those jobs an attainable option for all. After developing Everyone Can Code, an educational curriculum designed to teach children the language of technology, Apple launched an initiative to bring the program to schools that specifically support deaf and blind children.

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