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Technology Writing

Accessibility matters

“Woman sitting in car in the sunlight with a smartphone in her hands” by rawpixel on Unsplash

Accessibility is important. But we seem to keep forgetting about it.

I am part of the world’s first generation of Internet-first adults. My generation grew up as the Internet developed, and we’ve never known a world without access to so much information. I’m a little older to be a post-Google, post-floppy, post-fax person, but those things certainly didn’t last long in my life.

Consider all the progress that the Internet has brought us: the near-instantenous global postal system known as email; the world’s largest reference librarian, Google; the plethora of Internet-dependent mobile apps, which conjoined our greatest hardware invention, the smartphone, with our greatest communication network to produce wonders like the augmented reality game Pokémon Go.

The Internet has connected people and allowed communities to form in a way that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago, or so I’m told by people who were around a few decades ago. BuzzFeed, for all its faults and problems, did publish this well-researched and well-written explainer on Orientalism — a topic that I doubt would have reached a mass audience before the Internet.

I’m know I’m skipping over some of the terrible stuff about the Internet to make my point, but I do think the point is still true: The Internet has enabled some truly amazing things.

What pains me, then, is how I’ve increasingly begun to realize that the wonders of the Internet are not accessible to everyone.

This has been known for a while, and the cause has been championed by many people both on and off the Internet long before I got here. But I hope I can still add my voice to the chorus: There’s an entire group of people who struggle to enjoy the wonders of the Internet because it’s been made inaccessible to them.

These are the Internet users who don’t navigate the Web like we do, with our fully-able sets of eyes, ears and neurological functionality. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 360 million people globally with “disabling hearing loss,” equivalent to 5.3 percent of the world population. 253 million people are either blind or have “moderate to severe visual impairment.”

We’ve known this has been a problem for a while. Back in April 2010, Apple founder Steve Jobs wrote about the company’s relationship with Adobe Flash and why Apple was moving towards newer multimedia standards, such as the then-emerging HTML5. One consequence of Flash’s closed nature was it made it difficult for assistive technologies, such as screen readers, to understand the content.

I’m an able-bodied man, and I don’t have any long-term experience with navigating the Internet using assistive technologies. But I do know the Web Accessibility Content Guidelines exist, because I’ve read through all of the technical standard. And I know it’s reasonable to implement the standard and meet the WCAG 2.0’s recommendations and requirements.

I was inspired to write this piece after reading this article in Eater about the author’s struggle to find shui zhu yu, water boiled fish, in the United States that tasted like to her experiences in Beijing. The piece reads like a comic, with beautifully drawn illustrations of foods and tiny, adorable animations of who I presume to be a comic version of the author, Angie Wang.

It’s a touching story, but I got worried after I noticed that the text I was reading were within the images, not specially-styled text in HTML; an examination of the source code confirmed my suspicions. There were no alt tags and no text within the article body — just picture, picture, picture, picture, bam: “Angie Wang is a Los Angeles-based illustrator, animator, and game developer.”

The story was beautiful and touching to me, an able-bodied man navigating the Internet with a standard screen, mouse and keyboard — but if you’re trying to read that Eater article with a screen reader, I doubt you’ll even know where the author first had the elusive water boiled fish.

I’m sorry to pick on Angie Wang and Eater, considering this isn’t a problem just limited to them or to Eater’s owner, Vox Media. The lack of accessibility thinking is chronic across much of the Internet. Sometimes, it just seems like Internet creators can’t be bothered, but other times they’re downright ignorant, such as using closed captioning on YouTube as a place to insert in-joke and failing to recognize that closed captioning is essential to people who can’t hear your video — which could be because they’re a little deaf, or it might be because they’re on the quiet car and need to keep the volume muted.

These are not just unfortunate accidents. The inaccessibility of great web content, like the Eater article, is the result of deliberate decisions on the part of the content’s creators and Internet publishers. Whether it was conscious or not, the decision to publish this story as a series of pictures means they’ve chosen to exclude a group of their potential readers on the basis of their ability (or disability) status.

And you wonder why I think diversity in journalism is so important.

By Leo Ji

software engineer and news nerd