Over the past 25 years, technology has become an integral part of our everyday lives. The web plays a role in each facet of our society – commerce, transit, education, personal connections. In fact, the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities “recognizes access to information and communications technologies, including the Web, as a basic human right.” Yet for 20% of Americans, access to this basic right isn’t always guaranteed.

How can that be the case in a society where pictures of planets can be beamed across the galaxy to our watches? Imagine viewing a website and not knowing how to navigate the menu, what displayed images contain, or how to exit a pop-up window. Those may seem like standard website features, but let’s take a second look:

Try browsing a website without a mouse. Using only your keyboard, how far can you get? Past the homepage? To a new browser window? With known keyboard shortcuts, the options can be endless. But consider the basic process of filling out a form online. You input the required values, then tab to the next field. In a website with poor keyboard accessibility, hitting tab may instead vault you to a completely unrelated field, leaving you unable to tab yourself back to the correct one. You may be able to fill out your first name, yet with an incorrect tab order, you may end up filling out your zip code without ever being able to provide your last name. If a website lacks basic accessibility features, you may also wind up in a keyboard trap, never able to move from where you started, or end up frustrated by the lack of information – an all-too-real experience for people with disabilities.

Last May, the State of Minnesota’s information technology office (MN.IT Services) highlighted web accessibility by attempting the “No Mouse Challenge” for Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Noting that “if a document, application or system cannot support mouse-less operation, it may not support assistive technology or accessibility tools,” state employees were challenged to visit the State of Minnesota website and navigate it successfully for 15 minutes using only their keyboards.

While MN.IT Services didn’t release findings from their exercise, they sponsored the effort in hopes that government employees will “become aware and take ownership of their role in creating accessible content.” And they’re correct – with nearly 1 in 5 Americans living with a disability, web accessibility is a vital issue we should all play a role in. From content writers including descriptive calls to action to developers using markup language instead of images to convey information, involving each aspect of your web department ensures accessibility is a process, not a one-time project.

This all-hands-on-deck approach is often referred to as “designing with empathy.” Coined by Google, designing with empathy considers accessibility features throughout the entire design process, not simply as a finishing touch. For example, Google’s Gmail app lists the “Inbox” and “Write New Mail” buttons at the top of each page to assist visually impaired users, compared to typical app placement at the bottom near the user’s thumb. In the State of Minnesota’s case, designing with empathy operates in tandem with Section 508 Standards requiring individuals with disabilities “have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to that provided to the public who are not individuals with disabilities.” If your website is empathetically designed to offer an inclusive user experience, there’s a strong chance it aligns with Section 508 Standards as well. Not sure? Well, then it’s time to follow MN.IT Service’s lead and put down the mouse.

Once you put your website to the test, be sure to download Siteimprove's "Must-Have Accessibility Handbook" for additional web accessibility resources.


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