Making information technology accessible to people with disabilities

This is the writeup for the presentation: Making information technology accessible to people with disabilities given at Southampton University March 2009. These views are entirely my own and do not represent those of the IBM corporation.

It is important for anyone who is developing software or IT services such as websites to understand the concepts and the importance of accessibility. This article covers a number of topics that can help give you an understanding of accessibility issues, and how software and the web can be made more accessible to users with different types of disabilities

If you do an internet search for definitions of accessibility, you will come across a large number and variety of definitions. Many legal definitions relate to limitations that a person may have in their ability to carry out ‘normal’ tasks due to a congenital condition, an illness or injury. These legal definitions also often focus on a person’s ability to earn a wage or carry out specific types of employment. The following descriptions of disability and related terms are provided by the UN (U.N. Decade of Disabled Persons 1983-1992. 1983. World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons. New York: United Nations.):

  • Impairment: Any loss or abnormality of psychological or anatomical structure or function.
  • Disability: Any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.
  • Handicap: A disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or disability, that limits or prevents the fulfilment of a role that is normal, depending on age, sex, social and cultural factors, for that individual.

When discussing accessibility, especially in IT, it is important to understand the relationship between accessibility and assistive technology. Accessibility is an attribute of information technology that allows it to be used by anyone with varying abilities. On the other hand, assistive technology is specialized technology that someone with disability will use in order to access your information technology. The relationship between accessibility and assistive technology is described in the following section.

A word that is often associated with, and sometimes confused with, accessibility is usability. Accessibility in IT does not imply usability. It is possible for a solution in software or a webpage to be technically accessible, without actually being usable for people with and without disabilities. For example, a piece of software might have keyboard shortcuts, so that it can be used without a mouse, but the navigation and use of the software with those keyboard shortcuts may be very complicated, and therefore not usable. In fact, there have been cases where websites have followed accessibility guidelines, but legal action has still been brought against them because of usability problems for users with disabilities. In order for IT to be truly accessible it must also be usable. It is important to ensure that software and websites are accessible, because this is helpful for all of your users.

The relationship between accessibility and assistive technologies is very important. If IT such as software, web pages or hardware is inaccessible, then assistive technologies are unable to help users with disabilities to access them. The underlying IT needs to be designed and developed with accessibility in mind. For example, if software uses static font sizes and colours, then someone who needs larger fonts or a different colour contrast will not be able to see the application. If an application requires the user to use a mouse, and doesn’t provide any alternative methods of using it, then users with mobility problems or blind users will not be able to use that application. Hardware can also be inaccessible, for example if there are hard to reach buttons or latches, then a user in a wheelchair, for example, will not be able to use the hardware. Assistive technology such as screen readers, magnifiers, speech recognition software, special keyboards and switches can only work if the technology they are interacting with has been designed to be accessible.

Information technology that has been designed and developed to be accessible, works together with assistive technology for users with disabilities. If you have an application that has colour and font settings that can be adjusted by the user where the mouse is optional and someone can use the keyboard, where there is text for graphics such as alternative text and where latches and controls are easy to reach it can work successfully with assistive technology. The key to this relationship are to use standards and APIs designed for accessibility when you develop software, web pages or other IT.

Although making IT accessible may seem costly, it is in fact easier and more effective to design accessibility in from the start, rather than trying to solve the problem at a late stage in development.

There are many good reasons to develop accessible IT. Some of these relate to the needs of users:

  • The number of potential users with disabilities is very high. The UN estimates there are between 750 million and 1 billion people work-wide with disabilities relating to vision, hearing, mobility and cognition.
  • Aging populations have increasing numbers of impaired or disabled people, 7% of people world-wide are over 65, with 14% over 65 in developed countries. Many of us will need accessible IT in the future, even if we don’t need it now.
  • Anyone can be affected by a temporary or situational disability. Temporary disabilities last a short time, rather than being permanent, for example, if you break you arm, or forget your glasses. Situational disabilities are also usually short term and relate to your current situation, for example if you are in a very loud environment, you might not be able to hear sounds or words produced by an IT application; or if you are working in a situation where your hands are full, or you are wearing gloves, then you might not be able to use a mouse or a keyboard.
  • Often a less considered issue for accessibility is with changing user needs. These relate to skills that a user may have. A user may be inexperienced with IT or with a particular application, or may be using an application that is presented to the user in a language that is not their first language. This can be an area where the boundaries between accessibility and usability can be blurred, as changes made to help users with disabilities can also help users who are less experienced, or working in a new language.

Including accessibility in IT can help with inclusion and improving the experience for many users, including those without disabilities.

A key factor in making IT accessible is through the existence of both regulations relating to accessibility, and to standards relating to accessibility. These are often linked together as demonstrated by the most significant standard and regulation for accessibility in IT in the United States. Section 508 is the most comprehensive legislation addressing information technology. It requires that the US government and other agencies must purchase accessible products. Businesses must declare that their products are accessible as defined by the Section 508 accessibility standards. These standards are not only for the web but for software and hardware such as printers and copiers.

Lawsuits for businesses that do not comply can be brought by federal employees or members of the public. Criminal prosecution is possible if the accessibility status is misrepresented to the government. As a result of Section 508, a number of companies have been forced to make their websites accessible.

In the United Kingdom, the Disability Discrimination Act is the main regulation dealing with accessibility. Although the act does not mention accessibility of software or websites specifically, the practice guidelines use the example of a business providing a service using a booking service via their website as an example. The regulations require an individual or organisation to make a complaint and the RNIB has approached a number of organisations and threatened them with legal action to get their websites made accessible.

Similar regulations based on standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are implemented or planned across the world including Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Making accessible software has benefits for business and marketing, as new opportunities are available to sell to governments and private industry that must comply with the accessibility legislation. The need for accessible IT is a growing market in both government and the private section. , and the need for accessible Information Technology is a growing market.

Many of the guidelines that are designed to make software and websites accessibility are helpful to other users, because users have different backgrounds, goals, abilities and work in different environments. All these users have different needs, and accessibility can help address these different needs, promoting inclusion.

In order to understand the requirements and needs of users with disabilities, it is helpful to know some of the issues faced by these users. For different types of impairments or disabilities there are different kinds of accessibility and assistive technology that can be used in IT to help these users. There are four major categories of disabilities, and these are described below:

  • Eyesight: including people with no vision, or some functional vision. In some cases assistive technology such as screen readers are needed, for example by the blind to read web pages or a screen magnifier to make an area of the screen easier to read for a user with visual impairments. In some cases a user with a visual impairment may be able to adjust their browser settings to make reading more comfortable. This group also includes people with colour blindness and those with eyesight problems related to ageing.
  • Hearing: including people who are completely deaf or have partial hearing in one or both ears and require the use of a hearing aid.
  • Mobility: including a wide range of people with varying types of physical disabilities. In IT accessibility this category is often associated with those with upper limb mobility, manual dexterity and co-ordination problems. These problems may be a result of a disability and individual is born with or one that develops due to illness such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s or a stroke. People with a broken bone, for example, would also temporarily fall into the category.
  • Cognitive: includes people with dyslexia and learning difficulties. Dyslexia is a condition where people have difficulties with reading, writing or spelling. Learning problems can range from someone who has a serious mental impairment, or may be due to more common factors as poor literacy, a low level of skill using a computer, having to use the web in a second language, or problems understanding information.

The following section describes the needs of users with visual impairments. Users with low vision need to be able to enlarge fonts on the screen and select high contrast settings. Some users with low vision only need to be able to enlarge the font size, and often this capability is provided in the operating system. Other users may need only to change the colour contrast setting. For example if the default colour options are for a  light blue text on a dark blue, many users with a visual impairment will not be able to read the writing. However, if they can change the colour scheme, so that it is yellow text on a black background, this provides a higher contrast. Some users with low vision need both larger text and high contrast. When the capabilities they need go beyond what the operating system provides, then users must use assistive technology such as a screen magnifier to enlarge the fonts and create greater contrast.

A visual impairment that many developers often overlook is colour blindness, despite the fact that it is estimated that approximately 8% of men have some colour blindness. Although colour can be an effective way of communicating information to users with normal colour vision, it can not be relied up to convey information to colour blind users. A common way that colour is used in applications is the use of the colour red to indicate that something has stopped running, or is offline, and the use of the colour green to indicate that something is running or is online. Of course, red-green colour blindness is also the most common form, and for these users they cannot distinguish between red and green, and therefore the different objects appear the same. Screen readers also cannot pick up the colour information here. The right way to make it accessible is to provide another way to convey the information.

Colour can be used for those users who can see it, but additional information has to be provided – for example by the use of ‘online’ and ‘offline’ text, or using a suitable formatting that can be easily be seen by users with a visual impairment, and be recognised by a screen reader.

Blind users must use assistive technology called a screen reader a keyboard to access information technology. The screen reader reads out the text on the screen. The text that is read out includes text in web pages and documents for example, but it also reads out the controls and contexts of dialog boxes and application menus. The controls on applications have to be coded in a particular way to meaningful include the right information for the blind user, such as the application title, the items on the menu, the labels on buttons, and the keyboard keys to activate them. It is important that this information is coded carefully and meaningfully so that the screen reader can convey to the user the same information that a user without a visual impairment can see and access on the screen. There are programming APIs and tools to help code and test application interfaces like these for accessibility.

There are a number of ways of improving software and web pages for users who are blind or visually impaired. Text can be read by screen readers but controls and other media content have to be adapted to be used by assistive technology. If the content includes images, graphs or charts, then a text description needs to be given, so that a blind user can understand it. Navigation and some visual content of web pages can be a problem as they may have no useful meaning to a blind person so it is important for the user to be able to skip to the main content. Blind and visually impaired users should be able to access the controls or elements of a web site without a mouse, so menu or keyboard shortcuts should be available as alternatives to using a mouse. Tables, forms and pop-up windows must be designed so that they can be read by a screen reader. Allowing visually impaired users to resize the text and use high contrast or other personal settings is important.

Deaf and hard of hearing users are often forgotten in designing applications and websites to be accessible, but with an increasing amount of information being provided in an audio or video format, it is important to remember to provide alternatives or assistance for these users. Captions and visual equivalents are required to make audio content accessible to someone who is deaf. Transcripts can be used if there is no important visual information associated with the audio, but captions must be used if it is important to see the visual information concurrent with the audio. In addition someone who is hard of hearing needs to be able to increase the volume of that content so they can hear it; one way of addressing this is for applications to provide a volume control. As with conveying information using colour, it is also important to ensure that sound is not the only way that any information is conveyed to the user. For example, historically some applications have used only sound to signal an error in an application, or the action that the user is trying to perform. Provide a visual clue, as well as sound for users. This is also helpful to users working in a noisy environment where they cannot hear or distinguish sounds, or in a quiet environment, where the sound might be turned off.

Users with limited or no use of their hands need keyboard accessibility features and alternative input methods. The alternative methods could include speech recognition software which takes spoken words as input, instead of the user needing to type into the keyboard.

Other alternative hardware devices to enter data including joysticks, switches, mouth sticks and specially designed keyboards. In addition there are many accessibility features included in the operating system including mouse key which allows you use the arrow key from the keyboard to move the mouse pointer, sticky keys, slow keys and repeat keys.

You can also change the design of your application interfaces and web pages to use larger fonts on buttons and menus and to space menu items and links further apart so that the user can more accurately select item that they want to use.

Users with cognitive disabilities need a variety of technologies to make information accessible. There are a number of common problems that users with cognitive disabilities have with software including web pages. A major problem that many users have is difficulty in being able to enter text accurately and provide other input into an application. Users may make spelling mistakes and other errors when typing using a keyboard, and for some users this can be a very tiring way to enter data or perform actions. Methods to help users enter error free input include reducing the need to provide input, using voice synthesis for input and output, and using word prediction.

Some users with cognitive disabilities often have problems with concentration and memory difficulties. These users can be overwhelmed by choice or too much information and cluttered page design. Ways of helping these users are to reduce slow loading content; and use a simple, clear layout. You can provide pictures or photos that are useful to these users as comprehension aids, which help to break up the page, and provide an interesting focus for the user. This can help the user with information retention and navigating the application or page in the future.

Dyslexic users can also be helped by simplifying the page layout, and other page design features such as the use of narrow columns, unjustified text and not using a pure white or patterned background. A background colour changer is a useful feature, as dyslexic users often find that they can read text better against a different colour background. Using simple larger fonts and avoiding italics can also help. Short sentences and short paragraphs also help these users, as well as those with other cognitive disabilities. Providing an option to display more simple sentences can help these users, for example by having sentences that are shorter, and with fewer technical terms.

All users with cognitive disabilities are helped by being provided with simple navigation, for example, a simple list of links. It is also important to make it clear which elements of the page are clickable, as many of these users find it difficult to distinguish which elements on a page are clickable.

Many users are helped by the ability to customise the preferences they use with software or web pages, for example changing font colours, sizes and styles, background colours, whether to use audio as an alternative, speed of reading, complexity of the information on the page, language, the number and complexity of pictures and so on. As an example, these links are to a couple of websites that allow the user to set their own preferences for accessibility:

The advent of Web 2.0 technologies on the web brings a number of issues for accessibility. One of the major technologies associated with Web 2.0 are AJAX applications. AJAX applications are written in JavaScript and therefore require a JavaScript enabled web browser. This is a problem for compliance with accessibility standards as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0), which requires that websites must be able to function with JavaScript turned off. However, new standards are emerging that address the accessibility of “Rich Internet Applications (RIA)s including AJAX applications, for example WCAG 2.0. There is the suggestion in some areas that the guidelines are becoming vaguer, and therefore web accessibility will become less guidelines driven.

The way that AJAX is used to provide dynamic incremental updates on web pages represents a paradigm shift in web usage and many inexperienced users do not expect the behaviour. A user may not notice updates to a page, or that part of the page has changed. Automatic updates may be unexpected, and instead a page refresh on submit is expected. The behaviour of the Back button is also changed with dynamic updates. These issues are especially relevant for users of assistive technology such as screen readers and magnifiers, for example, if an update occurs in area of the page that the user is not interacting with, the user may not be aware that an update has occurred. Screen readers generally read from the top of the page, if an update occurs above the point in the page that the screen reader is at, the user needs to initiate a refresh of the page to read the change. These issues can be addressed by providing notification that updates have been made, or an option to allow the user to request updates manually for example, or to set an automatic page refresh when a request to update has been made.

AJAX applications can often have quite advanced interfaces, for example the Amazon Diamond Search application which can be difficult for blind users and users with a mobility disability to use. The answer to producing inaccessible web page applications is often to produce an accessible alternative, which often loses some of the interesting and interactive nature of the applications. In the past this tactic has been resented by users with disabilities.

One of the important aspects of Web 2.0 is the collaborative and user generated content such as social-networking sites, blogs, wikis, and media sharing sites such as flickr and youtube. How do you enforce accessibility on user generated content? Can you force users to add adequate text descriptions to photographs or captions to video?

Other media content common on websites such as Adobe Flash and PDF are constantly being updated to improve their accessibility, and to make it easier for web designers and developers to make their web sites and resources accessible. However, the needs of disabled users still need to be considered for accessibility to be built into IT.

There are many resources available on the web to learn about accessibility and how to make applications accessible, especially for web development. A good starting point for finding out more about accessibility and IT is the IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Centre website which is a comprehensive guide of many resources and references on the topic. The website is

Another useful reference is the guide to section 508 standards for electronic and information technology.  This can be found on their website at

There are also a number of free high quality tutorials available on the subject of web accessibility including:

The IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center website also includes a trail version of Easy Web Browsing which can be used to assist users with reading websites. This can be found at There are also accessibility checklists containing development and testing techniques for developers of software, hardware and documentation. These, and other checklists, can be found here:

Information about the UK Disability Discrimination Act can be found here:


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