Repost from IBM Social Business Insights: Accessibility 101: How accessibility affects you and your business

Earlier this year I started blogging for the IBM Social Business Insights blog as part of a team of IBM Redbook Thought Leaders. I'll be reposting those blog posts here on my personal blog. 
Accessibility 101: How accessibility affects you and your business was originally published on March 14, 2012, and is owned by IBM.
I recommend checking out the IBM Social Business Insights blog for some compelling and though-provoking content.
Accessibility 101: How accessibility affects you and your business
Holly Nielsen, Social Media Manager and Webmaster, Human Ability and Accessibility

Accessibility is one of those topics that once you’re introduced to it, you not only become passionate about it, but also an advocate for it. Some people have family or friends who have disabilities and become advocates that way. Others learn about accessibility because of unexpected life events – such as car accidents or chronic illnesses – that can have an impact on their abilities either temporarily or over a longer period. There are those of us, like me, who have the opportunity to work in this field as a meaningful career choice. Ultimately, because we’re all aging, accessibility and inclusion affect us all.

Accessibility and inclusion continue to be topics of growing relevance – grabbing a fair share of interest at the recent interactive portion of the South by Southwest (SXSW) technology conference in Austin, Texas. Four of my IBM accessibility colleagues presented at well-attended sessions this week at SXSW: 

As recently as five years ago, a salesperson asked me, “Blind people can use computers? Really?” She was astonished when she found out that yes, people who are blind can use computers, and after a demo, she went home and showed her grandmother, who had low vision, how to use the computer to shop online. The conversation gave us both new insights.

People who have disabilities use assistive technology (AT) and accessible IT (information technology) to access the Internet and its many applications. Here are a few of the ways people with different abilities might use AT or IT on the Web or with commonly used workplace programs:
  • People who are blind or have low vision may use a screen reader, software that reads text out loud (text-to-speech).
  • People who are deaf or hard of hearing may use video captions to read audio output from the computer (speech-to-text).
  • People with mobility impairments often cannot use a mouse, so they may need alternative input methods such as voice input, alternate keyboards or keyboard access devices such as mouth sticks.
  • People who have cognitive disabilities may need dual input to make sense of content; for instance, reading a webcast transcript at the same time they are listening to the webcast.
While accessible IT is critical for people with disabilities to effectively use technology, many other groups of people benefit from it as well. For example, today’s older generation is not only larger than ever before; but they are healthier and living longer. Forty percent of the projected population of Japan in 2060 will be 65 or older1. In China, 437 million; one third of the population, will be 60 or older by 2050.2 Nicknamed the ‘silver tsunami;’ the first baby boomers started turning 65 in 2011. While most boomers wouldn't classify themselves as having a disability, many are beginning to need assistive aids and technologies: reading glasses, larger fonts on their smartphones, tablets and laptops, and captions for videos.

Also, many solutions first developed for people with disabilities are ubiquitous in today’s world. The most recognizable ones are curb cuts and closed caption TV:
  • Photo of couple pushing  child in stroller across crosswalk, using curb cuts
    Curb cuts, originally designed to help wheelchair users cross streets at corners, are used and appreciated daily by people pushing strollers, delivery people pushing hand trucks or carts and travelers pulling roller bags, as a few examples.
  • Runners on treadmills at the gym watching TVs with closed captioning
    Closed captioning on TV, originally designed for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, is now in frequent use in noisy environments such as gyms, cocktail lounges, and airports. Also, non-native language speakers can benefit from closed captioning or video captions.

Mobile devices like the Apple iPhone have built-in functions such as “voice over” that voice enable applications and websites, useful for both sighted and vision-impaired users. The original technology was created by Ray Kurzweil, as shown in this 2012 Superbowl commercial.

Users with situational disabilities – watching a webcast in a noisy airport, driving a car and responding to emails, or trying to navigate a computer with a broken arm, have clearly benefited from the trend toward making applications inclusive.

Ultimately, technologies are changing at breakneck speed, and developers can take steps to reduce or eliminate many of the barriers that inhibit or prevent access.
  • When websites and applications are designed and built to the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, the recommendations make Web content more accessible.
  • When the Web Accessibility Initiative Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) Suite is implemented in web content and applications developed in technologies such as Ajax, HTML, or JavaScript, they become more accessible to people with disabilities. IBM for example, has built WAI-ARIA into its corporate accessibility guidelines to help make rich Internet applications accessible.