Sometime back, one of the engineers I work with pinged me about an accessibility* bug I had entered. I launch into details of the bug and how he could make the screen reader recognize the image when he stops me mid-word, “Wait. What is a screen reader**?”

Jaws, the most popular screen reader in use today, was developed in 1989 by Ted Henter, a motorcycle racer who lost his vision in an automobile accident. A decade is an eternity in the world of technology and yet, we have a young and smart engineer asking what a screen reader is.

Why?

Because accessibility is not mainstream. 

1. There are some facets to accessibility that makes it hard to understand, implement, maintain. Like JavaScript, famously coined the world’s most misunderstood language, accessibility is perhaps the world’s most misunderstood field. It doesn’t exactly fit into web design. It doesn’t only exist in the realm of web development. The WCAG*** reference tomes are indecipherable and not used by front end engineers for the most part. Sometimes even following an accessibility checklist might lead to an end result not exactly usable for everyone. Add to this the deeply entrenched but inaccurate sentiment that accessibility leads to boring web applications and now we perceive accessibility incorrectly as a barrier to innovation. The list goes on.

2. But, things are slowly changing:

  • I recently read an excellent blog post on the Twitter engineering blog about keyboard accessibility enhancements: https://blog.twitter.com/2013/improving-accessibility-of-twittercom
  • LinkedIn recently hired an accessibility evangelist. Facebook recently hired an accessibility specialist. PayPal, Amazon, Yahoo — they all have formal accessibility teams or people focusing on accessibility.
  • 24ways.org published an article on accessible coding: http://24ways.org/2013/coding-towards-accessibility/
  • The list goes on.

3. So, we can meet up in our little circles and complain about accessibility not being mainstream or we can embrace and contribute to the small waves of change integrating accessibility into web design and development. I like to think we have already embarked on the journey towards being mainstream. Now, we just need loads of patience and the ability to enjoy the view as we take our slow steps forward.

Together, we can make the web rise to its true and intended potential:

The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect – Tim Berners-Lee

Glossary:

Accessibility*: For this post, I use accessibility to refer specifically to web accessibility.

Screen reader**: A software used to read the contents of the screen so people who are blind can read and interact with what’s displayed on the screen. Eg: Jaws on Windows and VoiceOver on Mac.

WCAG***: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.