Design process vital to technology access
Speakers counsel state and local agencies on ensuring accessibility
by Jan Stapleman | Office of Communications
Christine McGroarty and Jim Pilkington may not be able to see, but they have a clear vision for their state: Colorado will be a leader in ensuring systems, software, websites, communications, forms and peripheral devices are accessible to all users, including people with disabilities.
In their presentation at the 2017 State Internet Portal Authority’s User Conference, McGroarty and Pilkington outlined what it would take for Colorado to achieve that goal. Speaking to an audience representing state and local agencies across the state, they recounted accessibility challenges they’ve faced as state employees.
Pilkington worked in the technology world for years before he lost his vision, and he continues in that field today as assistive technology specialist for the Department of Labor and Employment. Building on the conference theme, Enabling Digital Transformation, he and McGroarty prescribed an industry transformation that would start in software development and end in final testing.
“This is not rocket science,” Pilkington said. “Just a few things will catch 99 percent of accessibility issues. Software developers reuse computer code all the time. But sometimes the widget they’re reusing might not be accessible.”
Although it’s efficient to reuse code when possible, he noted, fixing post-production accessibility problems is not. It’s less expensive to build accessibility into the initial design than to cobble together a fix in the field.
“That’s like trying to retrofit elevators into buildings after they’re built,” Pilkington said.
Unfortunately, technological accessibility is not always a priority. Architects, for example, take numerous courses on how to design an accessible building. Information technology professionals may not receive more than a half-day class.
McGroarty, who maintains a busy schedule as budget manager at the Department of Public Health and Environment, sometimes carves out time to test drive web pages or applications for her department. Can her screen reader detect and convey the information on a web page? Can she complete a task without a mouse, using only her keyboard? This is essential, since using a mouse requires visually tracking the cursor on the screen. Although automated testing of products before they’re released might indicate accessibility, human testing in the field sometimes proves otherwise.
McGroarty recalled spending six uncomfortable months worrying about losing her job when the state decided to move email and other applications to a Google business account. Although Google claims its applications are accessible with a keyboard, McGroarty said, a basic task such as accessing an email or identifying the right email folder might require hitting the Tab key up to 50 times. She was relieved with a solution patching Gmail through Outlook, which made it possible for her and other visually impaired state employees to perform their jobs. But as her co-presenter Pilkington said, “Luck is not a strategy.”
McGroarty’s fear of losing her job wasn’t unfounded. Challenges from inaccessible technology keep many people with disabilities out of the workforce. The unemployment rate among visually impaired Americans lies somewhere between 60 and 70 percent.
Meanwhile, since her department upgraded all its printers and copiers, McGroarty now must rely on co-workers to retrieve her documents from the new touch-screen multi-function machines. Why? No more buttons. Touch screens are useless for the visually impaired.
On one hand, technology has transformed the lives of people with visual, hearing and physical disabilities in a multitude of positive ways, providing independence, communication, information and entertainment.
On the other hand, inaccessible technology not only blocks some job candidates from employment and poses perplexing challenges for employees with disabilities, but it also prevents customers with disabilities from accessing information and services. As the population ages, those issues will become increasingly prevalent. Some estimates predict more than 24 million U.S. citizens may have serious visual disabilities in the next 15 years.
“Retired folks are the first to pick up the phone and complain,” Pilkington noted. “They have the time.”
So how can state and local agencies make sure they're providing access to information and services to people with disabilities? And what steps must Colorado take to become a leader in technology accessibility?
Follow federal and state laws, and make use of related standards, guidelines and resources, which are already in place.
Develop a technology plan.
Develop technology accessibility tools, resources and expertise.
Analyze accessibility when considering new systems, software, websites, communications, forms and peripheral devices.
Educate programs, communications, IT, procurement and leadership on accessibility requirements when designing and selecting systems, software, websites, communications, forms and peripheral devices.
Engage a third-party accessibility advisor and testing company, rather than relying only on automated testing.
You can contact McGroarty and Pilkington about their technology accessibility presentation and accessibility testing here: