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No one left behind

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It was a breezy afternoon last December when more than 800 people, including the president pro-tempore of the California State Senate, gathered under Oakland’s famed 120-foot-high Rotunda for the Northern California ACLU’s annual Bill of Rights Day Celebration. There, attorney Natalie Hewitt Wormeli received the Lola Hanzel Courageous Advocacy Award for her decades of service in advancing state and local civil liberties initiatives and mentoring the next generation of women advocates.

“Natalie is joyful and passionate in her work to ensure that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution exist for all people in our country,” the citation read. “She inspires those around her to act by providing access to meaningful opportunities for change making.” When it came time to give her acceptance speech, her husband wheeled her to the edge of the stage, where a special lift was provided. She gave her acceptance speech, which literally moved people to tears. She had no notes to read and couldn’t see anyone in the audience. She just spoke from the heart.

Diagnosed with MS while in the second grade, Natalie has been blind and bedridden for years. To sit up even for a short while, as she had to do during the awards ceremony, is extremely painful. Yet she works a full schedule as a small claims court advisor, co-founder of the Yolo County Chapter of the ACLU and a leading advocate for a wide range of issues, including working to remove California’s death penalty.

Totally immobilized, she does everything virtually, from her bedroom. She works by issuing voice commands into what are now everyday consumer apps such as Siri, Alexa and Cortana. Her voice goes in, applications run, text and files go out. E-mails, text messages and files come in, voice comes out.

We’ve discussed in this column the exciting prospects of true human machine integration—growing living tissue and body parts, inserting probes, microchips, servo motors and the like. All of that holds great promise for the more than 100 million people in the world with conditions similar to Natalie’s. But it’s inexcusable for anyone with a serious disability to have to wait for technology to catch up. It’s here already. It’s the user community that needs to catch up. And we KM’ers need to be right out in front.

Welcome to WCAG 2.1

A product of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative, WCAG 2.1 outlines the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, also known as ISO/IEC Standard 40500, and in Europe, EN 301 549. It’s primarily aimed at making web content more accessible for people with physical, hearing, speech, language and visual impairments (including photosensitivity), as well as cognitive limitations and learning disabilities.

Unlike many other standards, WCAG 2.1 is easy to understand. It contains about 80 success criteria written as testable statements that are not technology-specific. The criteria are grouped into four categories. Web content must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust.

For example, under the perceivable category, one of the guidelines calls for providing text alternatives for non-text content such as images, banners, radio buttons, etc. Text alternatives include outputs such as large print, braille or speech. The sole success criterion is a check to “ensure that non-text content that is a control or accepts user input has a name or label that clearly describes its purpose.” Although it may sound like common sense, many websites don’t have that very basic feature.

Let’s say an e-commerce website uses a countdown clock or a flashing banner to get the user to take immediate action. Something as obvious as those two types of common widgets would be completely impervious to a blind person. The simple step of embedding a short line of text that indicates the same sense of urgency in words would go a long way to including the estimated 285 million visually impaired people in the world.

Here’s another way you can immediately begin making your online platforms more inclusive. Pay close attention to the order of presentation. Is your content randomly scattered across the screen? That may be fine for a person with normal vision. But for a blind person using only the Tab key and text-to-voice software, it can be confusing and extremely frustrating.

The WAI has produced a library of companion documents to help you improve accessibility. For example, the “Cognitive Accessibility Roadmap and Gap Analysis” document outlines user needs for people with cognitive or learning disabilities and provides additional guidance to help content authors meet those needs.

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