Guest Column | June 26, 2014

Creating Fully Accessible Web Content: The Industrial Approach

Creating Fully Accessible Web Content

By Shannon Kelly, Global Accessibility Solutions Subject Matter Expert, Actuate:The BIRT Company

How are your clients — or you — dealing with the challenge of accessibility?

Chances are, you are doing a fine job in terms of accessible facilities and architecture, perhaps with your internal hiring policies and maybe even with your website. It’s a lot less certain whether you and your clients are doing as good — and legally compliant — a job around the content on your websites.

There’s no end, unfortunately, of headlines in local, national and international press around aggrieved customers who have felt so ignored or improperly treated in this regard that they have sought legal redress. Many sectors are facing challenge around accessibility, especially in North America, the UK, Canada and Australia, though other parts of the world are not that far behind. That’s because of either existing or imminent legislation that mandates access by all sorts of people, but increasingly those with visual impairment: so think the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) of 1990 and the swath of litigious activity focused on digital accessibility, particularly aimed at Fortune 500 companies, including the recent iconic ruling by the Department of Justice on H&R Block. And there are many more examples, with observers expecting a lot more to follow.

Exceptions Have Stopped Being the Rule

How did organizations deal with this problem up until now? There’s a concept of an exception process. Normally, customers would be invited to sign up for a Braille version of a statement, which is fine if they have the time to wait for one to be generated for them. You simply can’t ask customers to wait in a digital, always-on age; however, these customers need information at the same time as everyone else, and it can often be expensive or even medically risky to ask them to wait. Welcome to the era of true, 24x7, content democracy.

Let’s drill down into what that will mean in the context of an enterprise or sector. You may well be in the business of what specialists call ad hoc content creation, where you produce PDFs — the de facto standard form for documents and content that are readable across whatever platform folks need to consume them from.

Accessibility At Scale

Most people will be working to dovetail that content creation with close fidelity to accessibility standards around PDFs. But say you are a bank, or financial institution, maybe a government body or a utilities outfit. Think about how you will make sure all of your customer statements, account notices or current balance statements or bills will be made accessible in their PDF versions? Are you going to have someone go through each statement following the correct accessibility guidelines? That might be a workable approach if you were sending out 30, 300, maybe 3,000 such statements in PDF form. How about 100,000? Or a million?

The fact is that it is simply not tractable or possible to ensure these “one-to-one,” customer-facing Web content examples are conformant with accessibility rulings, at that scale.

The honest answer is that businesses will need specific technology help to stand any chance of automating that process — unless they can spare the likely $5-$35 per page to get it done manually by contractors. What is more, the process will be repeated multiple times a month. So this is a problem around doing things a business has to do that can’t be done manually.

Returning to the problem, you and your clients need to consider a number of things. You need, essentially, to have the tagging structure correct when the underlying content — say, the data table in the bank statement — is made into a PDF, usually by collating a number of different data and content types into a whole and then converting. You will want all the accessibility rules to be properly followed, at sub-layer level, making sure the tagging structure is standards compliant and provides access  and navigation ability by the screen reader software many blind and visually impaired folks use to read and consume documents.

Compliant — But Also Helpful And Supportive

Put simply, what’s required is a set of intelligent templates containing accessibility rules that can be updated and that can spawn correct and fully accessible PDFs in the millions or more if that’s what you need — and a cost-effective solution for the mass output of documents. PDFs are after all the ideal way to deliver content out to everyone. But to make that a reality, for the whole complexity of people, you need to put work in to get that process done right. If you don’t, you will run the risk of legal problems. But let’s be honest: just as important as meeting the needs of your fellow citizens and customers is promoting a positive user experience, for those with disabilities and without — after all, it is how the coveted customer loyalty edge is won.

But, if you think you can do this with a non-industrial approach you’re storing up trouble and cost. Don’t do that — and good luck!