As we move forward to create a more diverse and inclusive world, delivering accessible content becomes increasingly important. But what do we mean by “accessibility” and why should accessibility be important to professional and technical writers?
In this session, Bob Johnson reviews the categories of disability and their impact on technical communication. Bob also reviews considerations such as population, economics, and legal exposure, that make accessibility an important concern for technical communicators.
About the Visiting Dojo Expert
Bob Johnson is a technical writer with a long professional and personal interest in accessibility. Professionally, Bob has audited technical communication content and has developed and implemented mitigation plans to improve the accessibility of that content. Bob helped establish an accessibility community at Red Hat, and led the establishment of an accessibility team in Red Hat’s technical communication organization.
Bob’s personal interest in accessibility is driven by his experience as a parent of children with cognitive disabilities, and husband of a special education teacher who specializes in inclusion.
Watch the Video
Recorded: 3 May 2021
Transcript (Expand to View)
[00:00:00.120] - Liz Fraley
Welcome to the TC Dojo from Single-Sourcing Solutions. TC Dojo is a techcomm community that is driven by you. Tell us what you want to learn. You choose the topics and we find the experts. In the TC Dojo open session today, we have Robert Johnson, Bob is a technical writer with a long professional and personal interest in accessibility. He's audited technical content, he's developed and implemented mitigation plans to improve content accessibility, he's helped establish accessibility communities at RedHat and he's led the establishment of the team there, that's grown up. Bob is personally interested in accessibility as well. He's the parent of children with cognitive disabilities and the husband of a special education teacher who specializes in inclusion. I love her! He is also the co-organizer of the DITA Boston user group. And we're excited to have him as the visiting expert in the TC Dojo today.
[00:00:58.420] - Liz Fraley
So, he's got a lot to cover, but please type in your questions as you think of them. We'll answer them all at the end. All right. I'll stop the share, pass control to you.
[00:01:09.420] - Robert Johnson
[00:01:09.420] - Liz Fraley
Perfect, all yours.
[00:01:17.090] - Robert Johnson
Awesome. So I wanted to start, maybe we chatted a little bit about this earlier, but May is an awesome month for me to be presenting about this here at TC Dojo, because May 20th is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. And so this is just the right time for us to be talking about this subject. So, moving on, here is my title slide, so accessibility basics. I'll go past my about slide because Liz has already gone over most of that, which is awesome. Briefly, our agenda, we will define Accessibility, what do we mean when we say accessibility, then talk about the Categories of Disability that Affect Content, and after that turn to why Technical and Professional Communicators should want to Deliver Accessible Content.
[00:02:19.940] - Robert Johnson
And finally, I should have some time for questions, presentation should be about 20 - 25 minutes and we should have 5- 10 minutes for questions at the end. So beginning with the definition, it's always good to start with that, what do we mean when we say Accessibility? What do we mean by Accessible Content? And I haven't found a legal definition or even a firm definition from the World Wide Web consortium, but the definition I use, which I've adopted from the Web accessibility initiative, is that Accessibility is the characteristics of a Product, (including its documentation), or of online content, that make it possible for users with disabilities to use that product (including its documentation), or to consume that online content.
[00:03:22.800] - Robert Johnson
Of course, that raises another question, what do we mean when we say disabilities. In general when we're talking about content, disabilities fall into 5 categories.
[00:03:35.880] - Robert Johnson
The first category and where most people go when they think accessibility for online content is Visual disabilities, primarily Blindness is what people usually think about. But in this area as well, it's also color blindness. The most prevalent form of color blindness is red-green color blindness, which affects about 8 percent of North European males and about 5 percent of North American males. I haven't found a lot of studies, so, giving the prevalence of various forms of colorblindness in other populations, given the disparity between North Europe and North America, I suspect that other populations are lower, but I just haven't found those studies. As communicators, visual disabilities are a high concern. You want to make sure that your content is easy to navigate and minimizes distractions for people that are on-screen readers, and you want to make sure that you don't have content that's inaccessible for people with colorblindness.
[00:04:58.120] - Robert Johnson
The second category of disabilities is Auditory. Here we're talking deafness and less severe uncorrectable hearing loss. The techcomm concern, or communication concern here varies depending on the content that you actually deliver, if you deliver streaming audio or video, then auditory disabilities are a major concern. If you don't deliver streaming audio or video, then it's not such a great concern. But under the 21st-century Communications and Video Accessibility Act or CVAA, if your organization has more than 15 employees and you deliver streaming audio or video, you must include either closed captions or a transcript or both in the case of video, you can deliver both.
[00:06:00.720] - Robert Johnson
The third category of disabilities is Physical Disabilities, this is a range of disabilities that may be congenital, a limb that doesn't develop fully before birth or some defect that affects motor control of limbs that develops before birth, accidents of birth such as cerebral palsy that affect motor control over different parts of the body, it's interesting, cerebral palsy is often misunderstood as a cognitive disability because it's very typical for the motor control to affect the face and mouth. And so their ability to communicate orally is affected and people perceive that as a cognitive disability. In fact, it's a physical disability. Also in this category, injuries that may occur after birth of a variety of possible injuries there may result in amputation, paralysis of a limb or diminished motor control, spinal injuries, for example that may result in diminished motor control over limbs and then various conditions or diseases that occur later in life, conditions like multiple sclerosis or arthritis that affect the functioning or again, the control of the limbs. As communicators, this is a high concern, again, particularly around navigation, if you wanted to make it easy for people with physical disabilities to navigate your content.
[00:07:56.070] - Robert Johnson
The fourth category is Cognitive Disabilities, cognition is basically our ability to interpret, understand and act on the world around us, and there are a number of disabilities that affect this. Dyslexia is a particularly well known form of cognitive disability where people may transpose letters or even not be able to to interpret letters. Parallel disabilities, Dysgraphia is inability to form letters or difficulty with written expression. Dyscalculia is difficulty forming numbers or with mathematical reasoning. Also in this category are conditions like Attention Deficit Disorder and more recently defined Executive Function Disorder that affect the ability of the individual to focus on and act on the world around us. And also in this category, it is the Autism Spectrum. Cognitive disabilities are a high concern for us as communicators. Again, we want to be sure that people can understand and interpret our content, make sure they can navigate it and follow through on whatever they need to do. We want to minimize distractions. So something that seems fairly natural to do, like using in-line links, is actually not a great idea for people with cognitive disabilities because they are very distracted. It's better to put your links in the group at the end of your content rather than putting them in line, although for most of us it seems natural to put them in line where they're in context.
[00:09:55.490] - Robert Johnson
And the final category of disabilities is Neurological. Here we're talking about defects in the structure and functioning of the nervous system. When we're talking about content, we're primarily concerned about seizure disorders. Certain rates of flashing are known to induce seizures, and we don't want to flash our content at that rate. As authors, it's unlikely that you're going to be creating this problem. But if you're customizing, publishing or delivering content, using authoring tool, you want to be sure you avoid that flashing that induces seizures in your users. Going to take pause for a drink here.
[00:10:49.270] - Robert Johnson
So now that we've reviewed the various conditions, let's turn to the question of why we want to make sure we deliver accessible content.
[00:11:00.370] - Robert Johnson
And the first reason is basically numbers. The population with disabilities is huge. One of the objections you frequently hear to delivering accessible content is, well, it's only a small portion of the population, and if all you think about is visual disabilities, then you're probably right. But if you think about the full range of disabilities, then the number of people with a disability is much larger. The WHO, the World Health Organization generally estimates that around 15 percent or about one person in six have a disability worldwide. So in 2011, that was about a billion people. In 2020, it was about one and a quarter billion people, not a small number by any measure. The 2020 US Census, the apportionment numbers were delivered last week. That's the numbers used to determine state representation in Congress, but more detailed numbers have not yet been published. So I'm still relying on 2010 numbers. But in the 2010 census, almost fifty-seven million Americans were reported as having a disability that was just shy of 19 percent of the population.
[00:12:31.510] - Robert Johnson
So not quite one person in five. Another objection you frequently hear to delivering accessible content, particularly for those of us that work in a B2B software environment, Business-to-Business software environment. Well, people with disabilities don't work, and that just plain is not true. In the 2010 census of the working-age population that reported having a disability, more than 40 percent also reported being employed. So a lot of people that are disabled, that need to consume content, both in general and in business. On top of that, anyone can be temporarily or situationally disabled. What do we mean by these things? A temporary disability is short-term and eventually it will resolve. So a good example here, someone with a broken arm, a broken hand, they probably can't use the mouse, they probably can't type on the keyboard. But once that bone heals, then they should be back to being able to do that. Certain forms of tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome or epicondylitis, which is inflammation of the epicondyle tendon in the elbow, also known as tennis elbow.
[00:14:06.970] - Robert Johnson
These affect your ability to navigate content using the mouse or the keyboard. Temporary disability may also result from recovering from a surgery or a severe illness. For people that have abdominal surgery, for example, it's common to have a restriction on how much they're allowed to lift. They might not be allowed to lift more than 10 pounds. There have been reports over the past year that people recovering from Covid have had longer-term cognitive issues related to the Covid infection. Long term, do we know whether that's going to resolve? We hope it will, but that is another potential disability. Situational disabilities are just by the situation. So a good example is, if I'm a parent holding a young child or a baby or a toddler or preschooler, as long as I have that child in my arm, I don't have use of that limb. So the situation causes me to be disabled. When I put that child down, that disability goes away, I have full use of both limbs.
[00:15:30.370] - Robert Johnson
Another example is if you're trying to access your voice mail in an airport where there's a lot of ambient noise or even just trying to watch the televisions, the ambient noise makes it difficult, if not impossible, to hear that content. And then having closed captioning on the televisions, for example helps you get around that problem. Turning to the law, the law does guide accessibility most national governments, particularly in the EU, have some degree or order of requirement that products be accessible. In the United States section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires the government to prefer accessible products. It doesn't require that the products themselves be accessible. But basically, if you are bidding for a government contract and your product meets 95 percent of the requirements and your competitors product meets 80 percent of the requirements, but your competitors content is more accessible, your competitors product is more accessible, under Section 508, the government must purchase the competitor product that is more accessible.
[00:17:07.390] - Robert Johnson
Organizations Vendors can do lose government contracts because their products and content are not accessible. States and most localities either prefer or require accessible products, so they basically follow Section 508. But in the past 8-10 years, states in particular have become more assertive regarding accessibility. So for a number of years, the federal government has provided a document called the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, or VPAT, and vendors basically fill out the VPAT. Here's our accessibility and there it is. And now states are beginning to come back to vendors and say, OK, what are you going to do to fix it? How are you going to improve your accessibility? Don't just tell me where you have gaps, tell me when and how you're going to close those gaps. And states are beginning to award contracts based not just on the VPAT, but on the plans to improve accessibility. It's interesting that a couple of states that have reputations for being more conservative and less friendly to accessibility have actually taken the lead in this area and that's basically Texas and Utah. But across the board, states are asking vendors not just tell me your accessibility, but tell me what you're going to do to fix it.
[00:18:56.710] - Robert Johnson
Of course, in the United States, litigation is always a concern, and since 2015, we've seen a veritable tidal wave of accessibility lawsuits in general, but web accessibility lawsuits in particular, starting from a low of a few dozen in 2015 and growing by 300 and 400 percent per year until 2018. You can see the numbers here. The numbers have leveled out a little bit in the past couple of years at the rate of growth, rather than 200 or 300 or 400 percent year over year. We're seeing about 25 percent year over year. There are a few reasons for this. One is simply the capacity of the courts 2,200 cases is about one case per hour through the working year. And honestly, in 2018 I thought the numbers were plain and simply going to level off because the capacity of the courts to absorb that number of suits was being reached and the rate has certainly slowed, but it is continuing to grow.
[00:20:19.790] - Robert Johnson
There are a couple of other reasons I think things are slowing down that I'll get to shortly. But I want to point out that plaintiffs are generally successful when they sue for Web accessibility. And I'm saying successful rather than win, because like lawsuits in general, most lawsuits over accessibility are settled out of court. And both accessibility advocates and defending counsel agree that generally the plaintiff gets what they want, which is usually accessibility to web content, accessibility guideline level double way. Which is the middle standard of accessibility of content. 2017 in particular was a watershed year for the litigation to go forward in June, two decisions in Florida, there was a decision that the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain had to make its website accessible. Keep that Winn-Dixie in mind, because we're going to hear from them again. And then a couple of days later, a judge in California rejected an argument from Hobby Lobby that a Web accessibility case from a blind customer ought to be dismissed. And then end of July, beginning of August, two cases in New York won against the Five Guys chain, hamburger chain that allowed a case to proceed and another where the judge not only allowed the case to proceed, but blasted the defendant, Blick Art supplies, who had asked for the case to be dismissed.
[00:22:17.810] - Robert Johnson
And he basically said, you know, I don't know why you're making this argument. It's the right thing to do. Just go do it! Blick actually settled by the end of the year. One of the responses of businesses to these lawsuits has been that they violate due process rights, that they need to be notified that there's a problem before they could be sued. And Domino's Pizza was very successful on this basis in a number of suits until late 2018 when they won at the district level in California. The plaintiff appealed to the circuit level and the 9th Circuit and the 9th Circuit agreed with the plaintiff. No, there's no due process here, go fix your accessibility problem! Domino's appealed to the Supreme Court, I find it interesting not only that the Domino's kept calling due process, but filed this appeal at the Supreme Court, and in their own appeal, they said that it would cost them 40,000 dollars to fix the problem. It generally costs 150,000 -250,000 dollars to file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. So they wanted to pay four to six times as much to appeal the decision as it would have cost just to fix it. But in October of 2019, at the beginning of the session, the Supreme Court denied the Writ of Certiorari. Basically, there were not four justices that agreed that there's due process problem here and they allowed the 9th Circuit decision to stand. But one reason that cases are beginning to level out is simply that courts are establishing boundaries over this litigation.
[00:24:31.480] - Robert Johnson
In particular, courts are stating that plaintiffs must have legitimate business. So a blind user in New York sued the Kroger supermarket chain in New York over the accessibility of their website. But Kroger doesn't have any stores in New York. So the New York court dismissed the case because they didn't have validity. The user didn't have a real case to access the site. On other cases where courts have dismissed suits from blind users against colleges and college websites because those users were not prospective students or against, for example, credit unions, because the plaintiff didn't have legitimate business with the credit union, and one case was a credit union that serve police officers, and the plaintiff was blind and obviously wasn't a police officer, and so the case was dismissed. The Winn-Dixie case, as I mentioned earlier, the plaintiff won on the district level Winn-Dixie appealed to the 11th Circuit, and this is a new development in the last couple of months. The 11th Circuit reversed the decision because in the Winn-Dixie case, completing the transaction required the user to actually visit the physical store, where for a lot of these other cases, the transaction is completely online or it's an order that's delivered.
[00:26:16.900] - Robert Johnson
For example, in the Domino's case, you place your order online and then it's delivered. But in the Winn-Dixie case, the user initiates a transaction, but then has to go to the store to finalize it. And the 11th Circuit said that does away with the requirement for accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The 11th Circuit also specifically called out its disagreement with the 9th Circuit that the nexus of interaction between a physical business and the online business creates liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The 11th Circuit basically just says, no, it doesn't, where the 9th Circuit says it does. So there's actually a difference of opinion between circuits now, which may bring the Supreme Court into action. I think a lot depends on who chooses to appeal, whether plaintiffs or businesses choose to appeal.
[00:27:30.920] - Robert Johnson
In the end, accessibility is just plainly the right thing to do. It's just not right to make your content inaccessible to your users because you exclude them from your content, you exclude them from your product. We are striving today to build a more diverse and inclusive society, and that has to include users with disabilities, and it has to include users with a full range of disabilities. Moreover, people with disabilities just face more challenges. Living life day to day. People with the visual and auditory disabilities, for example, have to spend more just to interact with the world that plainly and simply doesn't accommodate them. They have to work to accommodate that world. Well, we can go and meet them at least halfway. People with disabilities generally also live more stressful lives, generally have a lot more anxiety, generally are more prone or more susceptible to bullying and generally have a shorter life expectancy. So whatever we can do as writers to mitigate these problems is just plain the right thing to do!
[00:28:59.670] - Robert Johnson
Here's my contact information, Liz said she was going to share that as well, and I'm going to end with, again, my splash slide about Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and with that Liz, I think we're ready to take some questions.
[00:29:18.970] - Liz Fraley
Bob, that was perfect, and extremely moving conclusion. I don't know how to say it better, I truly do not. That was fantastic.
[00:29:33.110] - Liz Fraley
Now it's time to type in those questions if you haven't already. And while you do, here's a look at what's coming up. The TPC Affinity Groups are monthly driven member discussion groups where attendees present their specific challenges to a group of their peers in a confidential, supportive environment. They can get feedback and advice about topics on their mind in real-time from others who've been in their shoes. You can sign up at the TC Dojo website at tcdojo.org. We know sometimes magic is just having the time to collaborate with someone who's been where you are.
[00:30:08.310] - Liz Fraley
We've got the TPC Affinity Groups, they are monthly member-driven discussion groups who attendees present their specific challenges to a group of their peers in a confidential, supportive environment, we focus on everything Tech comm, from DITA to topic-based authoring, to cross-references and graphics and back to the cross-references, and we know that sometimes magic is just having time to collaborate with someone who's been where you are. In Room 42, we've got two really great talks coming up this month.
[00:30:37.860] - Liz Fraley
The first is Erin Carlson, she's next Wednesday, a week from this week. She's going to talk about documenting experience, in particular in West Virginia, where people are coming out in confrontation with the pipeline, and confrontation is kind of a weird word to use there. But she's discovered a brand new opportunity for technical communicators in a place to do meaningful work that most of us didn't realize was an opportunity. So places for you too if you're transitioning or you want to change industries or specialties, this is a perfect place to work and get things for your portfolio and demonstrate exactly the power of communication. So that's going to be a really good session next week, be sure and attend. And at the end of the month, we've got Tim Amidon coming from Colorado State and he's going to talk about specifically UX and techcomm intersect in high-pressure environments like firefighters. How do you test UX user experience on process or documentation or products in an environment like that where you absolutely can't stop them and say, OK, how'd that go right there fighting the fire.
[00:31:51.300] - Liz Fraley
Both session is going be really great this month. So be sure and sign up for that. Links to everything are on the TC Dojo page, the short link tcdojo.org will take you there. So I see a first question in the chat is, can we get a transcript? Yes, we actually are retrofitting transcripts to all of our videos, including this one, there's a slight delay because we actually have a human eye verify the transcript, it's not just machine done, but we are using a service and a transcriber to do all that might be a couple of days, but we're retrofitting all the old TC Dojo session that way too. In the meantime, I believe you can in the ribbon for the zoom, you can, there's, you can save the transcript so you can actually see the full transcript, and then if you open that and then do save, you can save a copy for now and at least you'll have that in the meantime. Also, Bob has links that he wants to add that I'll put on the event page, so that's where you signed up. All right, I think you blew people away, Bob. I'm not seeing a lot of questions. That was tremendous.
[00:33:06.570] - Robert Johnson
I saw something someone said that I've been an opponent of inline linking, I did see that.
[00:33:12.575] - Liz Fraley
Oh, that's me.
[00:33:12.777] - Robert Johnson
Oh that's you. okay.
[00:33:12.800] - Liz Fraley
That's me, I am a total opponent of inline linking. I'm sharing the wrong screen. I'm a total opponent, I've hated inline linking for a really long time because it does it's distracting, it's hard to maintain, there's all kinds of issues from it. It had no idea it was part of, it's better for accessibility overall to not have them.
[00:33:37.470] - Robert Johnson
Right, and for people on a screen reader, what happens is the screen reader reads the text, then runs into the link and says, Oh, here I have a leg, here's the URL. And you've lost the sense of the text. So it's very disruptive, and for people with cognitive disabilities like EDD an Executive Functioning Disorder, those inline links are also very distracting. And they lose the sense of the text as they--oh let me jump to that link! It's like, well, I'm having sitting here -- oh look, a bird! You know, it's it's very distracting.
[00:34:25.460] - Liz Fraley
It is and it's funny, because 10 years ago, almost maybe even 12 years ago, Salesforce did a webinar for us and they had tracked inline linking, people, no matter who you'll click, click, click, click, click through whenever you see a link and then you forget how to get back to where you were because there's no backward.
[00:34:47.770] - Robert Johnson
I actually took a while to get on board with this because linking and content seems very natural. And it took several discussions with accessibility experts and I consider myself an advocate, not necessarily an expert, but several discussions before I came on board to saying, you know what, this is right. And especially dealing with my children's cognitive disabilities and seeing how easily they were distracted. It was an object lesson for me.
[00:35:26.890] - Liz Fraley
Yeah, so here's a good question, is there a way to connect links to the context if it's listed in the end?
[00:35:34.570] - Robert Johnson
So the link text ought to make that very clear. So you want to make sure the text of the link clarifies the connection to the text. So an example you know, you've got. You're in a troubleshooting section and fix problem A and in your link text, the text itself will say here's how to fix problem A, and then the link goes to the target location. But that's one way around that problem is and it's actually part of the web content accessibility guidelines that the linked text should make clear the point of the link. But that's a good question.
[00:36:32.660] - Liz Fraley
Right, it is. That's not always obvious, it feels like it is sometimes, but it isn't.
[00:36:39.790] - Robert Johnson
No, if you just put it, for example, the title in which is the default in DITA, right, it just links you to the title. You may miss that connection between the link and the text. So putting that, you know, writing your own link text that clarifies this link is about this part of the text and context helps address that problem.
[00:37:11.840] - Liz Fraley
Awesome. Yeah, that's great. We could have a whole session on titles and short descriptions and link text, I think.
[00:37:21.270] - Robert Johnson
Sure. And I'm happy to come back. Obviously, this is something I'm passionate about and I'm happy to come back and talk more, you know, discuss the resources in more detail or you know we can talk about some specifics about how to make your content accessible if there's the demand for it from your participants.
[00:37:51.890] - Liz Fraley
Well, also, don't forget to vote in the TC Dojo survey, right, I do look at this list on a regular basis to see what topics are of interest, and you don't have to, you can't just vote once, you can vote many-- you can change your vote over time because our interests change the industry moves and what was relevant 10 years ago may or may not be relevant today. So absolutely vote on the TC Dojo survey and or you can include who you want to hear from, like we totally want to know that stuff. Tell us what to learn. We shouldn't have to tell you. You need to tell us what you want to learn. That was amazing Bob, that really was-- that was, I couldn't ask for more you gave basics and, you know, the reasoning behind it, and once you know, and once you're there, you want to just do the right thing.
[00:38:49.890] - Robert Johnson
[00:38:51.000] - Liz Fraley
I do. Anyway, I like to think that people want to do the right thing generally.
[00:38:55.920] - Robert Johnson
Well, thank you for inviting me, I appreciate the opportunity. Like I said, it's something I'm passionate about, so I'm happy to share with other members of my community.
[00:39:08.070] - Liz Fraley
Awesome, and we appreciate that.
[00:39:10.770] - Liz Fraley
Thanks for coming to the TC Dojo by single-sourcing solutions where it's all about you subscribe to our mailing list at join.tcdojo.org. You'll get a link to this session, as well as announcements for future sessions and a convenient link to the survey, every month, we look at the survey results so we can go out and find experts willing to share their expertise. Why should we tell you what to learn? You should tell us. Vote now at survey.tcdojo.org. As always, the TC Dojo is our pleasure to host. If you need more personal help and want to speak to one of our TC Dojo experts in residence, just go to ask.tcdojo.org where you can get your question answered and be on your way. Thanks again and see you next time.
Resources from Bob:
Questions about how to develop and deliver accessible content are common. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the place the start:
Both 2.0 and 2.1 are currently in force. WCAG 2.1 is an expansion of WCAG 2.0, not a replacement.
Another place to go is the Accessibile Rich Internet Applications suite (ARIA suite):
WCAG is more directly applicable to authors. ARIA is more applicable to publishing and delivery.
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