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What you don't know about accessibility could cost you

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Bill Bettega, Manager, Accessibility Program Office, Hewlett Packard Enterprise

Technology has evolved to the point where conducting your daily business, such as banking, interacting with government agencies, or making retail purchases, is completely dependent on IT. At the root of these technological advances is the need to exchange information, and that information is now available on almost any device to the visually impaired, hearing impaired, and those with other disabilities.

If you're not thinking about accessibility features up front in your product planning, you're headed for trouble. These features are in demand for a wide range of people, and the cost of implementation is negligible if done up front. If you wait too long, your cost to retrofit accessibility features will be high and you may just lose customers.

Why accessibility matters

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), roughly 15 percent of the world's population has some form of disability. That is a significant segment of the market that you may be missing out on if you ignore accessibility needs. But these services are routinely used by those without disabilities as well. While you're used to operating your PC with a mouse and keyboard, being able to control it with your voice can be useful in many scenarios that have nothing to do with a disability. Assistive technologies can remove barriers for disabled people, but they can also speed up access in general.

Now that assistive technologies are available, the US and European governments are taking action to drive an agenda for equal access for all. Enterprises also need to be able to adapt to these regulations, as well as to the needs of the widest pool of qualified workforce talent. Fortunately, the cost of including accessibility is so low that it simply makes good sense to implement at least a few basic accessibility design principles in every product.

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How much accessibility do you need?

With so many different accessibility scenarios, how do you determine which to address? Unless your application is designed for a very specific disability, you can follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. While written for web applications, these guidelines also apply to other types of software. Now in version 2.0, this W3C standard specifies three compliance levels: A, AA, and AAA.

While achieving AAA, the highest level, may place limitations that encumber your general design efforts, complying with A or AA is usually achievable without making any compromises to your design. What's important to remember is that this should be an ongoing effort. Test your design and implementation accessibility at every phase of development, and make sure your tester is a representative user who has a disability.

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No need to reinvent the wheel

You can choose one of two approaches to accessibility. You can build it directly into your app: For example, create a button that makes everything on screen bigger for the vision impaired. This might be the best approach when your users can't apply assistive technologies to your app, such as at a self-contained airport kiosk.

In most cases, however, the preferred method is to design your application to use standard accessibility tools so that disabled users can apply the relevant assistive technology. A classic example is the Job Access With Speech (JAWS) screen reader program that lets visually impaired users interact with computer screens. Applications that use the standard accessibility features of the underlying operating system can be read by JAWS pretty much out of the box.

Operating systems such as Windows, iOS, and Android come equipped with accessibility modules that you can easily build into your application, while the W3C's Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite (ARIA) defines how applications written in Ajax, HTML, JavaScript, and similar scripting languages should provide information on user interaction to assistive technologies.

Ideally, the time to do your planning is before you start coding. While designing apps to be ready for assistive technology is relatively easy, adapting them to support accessibility is more difficult once development is underway. If you use standard platform elements such as UI controls and follow the guidelines in ARIA, most of your accessibility support will be free. If you deviate from these standards, however, you will need to include the relevant accessibility attributes yourself.

No excuses

People with disabilities need access to the same technology as everyone else. A disabled driver needs to fill out web forms for the DMV, and a disabled doctor or nurse may need to use a tablet to take a patient's medical history. And anyone can become temporarily disabled in some way; whether through illness, injury, or some special circumstance.

All the functions that we take for granted can be cumbersome for those with disabilities if accessibility is not implemented correctly. There's really no excuse for any application to be inaccessible to the disabled anymore: The built-in support that major operating systems have, along with the mature guidelines offered by the standards bodies, puts accessibility within the reach of any developer.

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