Aiming for Accessibility in a Digital Space

You are reading this blog post. Or more accurately, you are engaging with the text and image content of this blog post on a device, possibly through an assistive technology.

The act of reading is weighted with assumptions about the abilities of the reader, made by the writer. My reading experience happens to align with my writing experience: on a laptop at 50% brightness in 12-point Garamond font, scrolling on the trackpad with two fingers. But these conditions are not universal, especially for people with low vision or reduced dexterity. It is the task of the inclusive web content creator to ensure that all types of readers can engage with their content.

Prioritizing Accessibility

My Fellowship project, Not Just Art, is a digital gallery for visual artists with disabilities. All aesthetics aside, I intended to make this website as user-friendly as possible for people with disabilities. But being non-disabled, I underestimated the work required to ensure that every visitor (regardless of ability or technology experience) can read and engage with the content. I would need to take a much deeper dive to learn about intentional and consistent accessibility conventions.

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web [1]

More than a billion people worldwide are living with some form of disability—at least 15% of the world’s population [2]. The 2001 and 2011 Indian censuses found over 21 million people living with disability (about 2.21% of the population), with the majority having visual impairments [3] Many international organizations estimate a number closer to 40-80 million. Considering the huge number of people living with disabilities in India and beyond—and their increasing mobile phone and social media usage [4]—their presence in the global digital space should be prioritized.

Unfortunately, web content is rarely designed with ability in mind. A “digital disability” is imposed, fueled by web infrastructures designed by and for non-disabled people [5]. This barrier disregards assistive technologies and further marginalizes people with disabilities.

Segment of source code for the "Artists" page of Not Just Art. Lines 463 through 482 are visible, with text in red, blue, purple, and black.
Confused? Me too. But intentional accessibility accommodations can parse complex web components (like source code) into manageable, meaningful messages.

Assessing the Standards

Disability resources and legislation can vary widely. The most ubiquitous accessibility statement is the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). Article 9 of the CRPD discusses accessibility of infrastructure and information and communication technologies (ICTs) [6]. Just as freedom of information is considered a basic human right, accessible ICTs must be considered a right as well.

In the ICT realm, there are global standards addressing accessibility and universal design. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops open standards for all matters unfolding on the web. Their Web Accessibility Initiative is a treasure trove of information on inclusive web design, content development, and accessibility evaluation. They also provide tools and resources for inclusive digital spaces and technologies [7].

While the W3C standards are global in scope, they are not legally binding. The Government of India launched its “Accessible India” campaign in 2015, largely focusing on physical infrastructure and government documents [8]. In addition, the 2016 Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act mandates sweeping provisions and accommodations across the public and private sectors, but lacks formal enforcement for these changes. Neither “Accessible India” nor the RPWD Act has concrete web accessibility requirements—just general guidelines [9].

Thankfully, there are independent organizations researching the state of Indian digital spaces. The Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, for instance, reports on interdisciplinary topics such as accessibility and Internet governance through an academic policy lens. CIS research does not overtly affect national policy, but it has brought scholarship on India’s digital presence into the global eye.

Confronting Digital Disability

Even with all the standards and knowledge at my disposal, I still felt unequipped to create an accessible art website. For an expert’s perspective, I consulted with Sivapriya and Shivasuresh, trainers for visually impaired candidates at the Youth4Jobs Hyderabad training center. Both have visual impairments themselves and are active web users; Sivapriya’s teaching specialty is digital technology. We did a live test of the NJA website, in which they pointed out pain points and room for improvement. I immediately set out to implement their suggestions (and am still working at it).

Sivapriya, a trainer for visually impaired candidates, demonstrates for participants of AIF’s Leadership Trip how visually impaired individuals can book an Uber through a screen reader.

It was surprising to learn from my colleagues that the majority of common websites (including parts of the Indian government website) employ noticeably poor accessibility practices, especially regarding images and captchas. Sivapriya’s and Shivasuresh’s recommendations for inclusive digital spaces align with those from the W3C:

  • Ensure that the website follows common keyboard command shortcuts
  • Specify page regions (e.g. navigation, main text, headers/footers)
  • Provide alt text descriptions for images (if these are not an option, provide captions somewhere on the page)
  • Provide transcripts and closed captions for audio and video material
  • Structure headings within bodies of text
  • Provide labels for all interactive elements (e.g. links, buttons)
  • Avoid gesture-based elements (e.g. mouse-over, click-to-continue)

[Video: “Web Accessibility Perspectives – Compilation of 10 Topics/Videos” by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (YouTube). Image of a man sitting in a lawn chair in front of bushes, holding a mobile phone; a white guide dog lays on the grass to his right.]

In addition to people with disabilities, the non-disabled public benefits from accessibility improvements. Older people with sensory limitations often use visual, auditory, and navigation aids. Closed captions can help foreign language speakers better comprehend dialogue in videos. People in rural and developing areas also benefit, as low connectivity may prevent images from loading; alt text describes image content so they know what is missing. Uniform accessibility standards benefit far more people than the disabled community alone.

If you, the reader (in whatever form you are here), have recommendations or comments on web accessibility tools and resources, please do share them below. I am learning every day how to be a better ally for my friends and colleagues in the disabled community; the first step is making sure they can participate in the discussion.


References and Notes

[1] “Accessibility.” World Wide Web Consortium, 2017.

[2] World Health Organization and World Bank. Summary: World Report on Disability. World Health Organization Press, 2011.

[3] “Disabled Population.Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India, 2001.

[4] Pal, Joyojeet et al. “Representation, Access and Contestation: Facebook and Vision Impairment in Jordan, India, and Peru.” Disability and the Global South, vol. 2, no. 3, 2015, pp. 894-815.

[5] Chaudhry, Vandana, and Shipp, Tom. “Rethinking the Digital Divide in Relation to Visual Disability in India and the United States: Towards a Paradigm of “Information Inequity”.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 2, 2005.

[6] United Nations, General Assembly, Resolution 61/106. “Article 9 – Accessibility.” Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), A/RES/61/106. 24 Jan. 2007.

[7] The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) is the current technical standard; their guide to basic Accessibility Principles and Easy Checks (accessibility evaluation checklist) are based on this.

[8] Sharma, Dorodi. “Why Does Mainstream Indian Discourse On Digital Inclusion Leave Out Disability?” The Wire, 9 May 2017.

[9] The Government of India does have a set of accessibility guidelines for government websites, found within the National Informatics Centre, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

Priya is a librarian and artist passionate about connecting people with life-changing knowledge, resources, and experiences. She has a master's degree in library and information science, and has worked in public and academic libraries, archives, and arts institutions. As an undergraduate, she spent a semester in Hyderabad studying Indian literature and culture. Her graduate research includes rural Indian libraries, Indo-Caribbean library systems, digital libraries, and services to underrepresented communities. Prior to the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Priya worked as a reference librarian at the Boston Public Library and as a library and archives assistant at Harvard University. She also volunteered as a youth mentor and has played in a variety of world music ensembles. In her free time she enjoys running, cycling, book and paper arts, and exploring her community through food and music. Priya is motivated by the belief that everyone can benefit from community-driven education and public programming, from the neighborhood to the national level. She is excited to join Youth4Jobs in their newest venture and connect young artists of all abilities to allies and employment.

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