Many people think about Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance in terms of handrails, curb cuts, ramps and parking spaces, but when it comes to computer technology, meeting existing ADA standards is not as clear cut. As computer use by individuals with disabilities continues to rise, WeCo, a St. Paul- based user-experience testing firm, is helping their clients navigate the slippery slope of inclusive design one line of code at a time.
Lynn Wehrman has seen first-hand how difficult it can be to navigate the internet with a disability. Having lived with a cognitive disability herself, and spent three years as an Accessible Communications Specialist with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Lynn has observed some of the pitfalls that pop up routinely while surfing the web. In her work helping to implement the state’s ADA transition plan, Lynn had the opportunity to go into people’s homes and observe how they were navigating the online landscape provided by the department’s site. It was around this time when she began to study web design and the pieces started to fit together, “the first thing any web designer notices when they become exposed is how the entire World Wide Web structure is set up as a visual medium,” Lynn said.
The realization dawned on her that people were using sites in ways she wasn’t aware of and often the design was not reflecting this reality. She explains that in order to make a site functional for those using it in non-visual ways, you have to properly code it. Often times designers take shortcuts that look similar on the page, but behind the scenes, may actually lack the coding that enables assistive technology to work effectively. Lynn’s takeaway for individuals navigating the web was that there was a huge disparity between sites meeting legal compliance with existing proscribed standards and actually being user accessible. She began to notice how web designers were misunderstanding the legal argument to be made for accessible design. This realization, coupled with her knowledge about small business and press communication, led her to form the Wehrman Collective, or WeCo, a user-experience testing firm that trains people who live with sight, hearing, motor skill and cognitive-related disabilities to test electronic venues for access in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 legislation.
In order to understand what it means to accurately design for accessibility, it helps to familiarize with some of the assistive technology used by people as they navigate their computers and access the World Wide Web. For those with visual impairments there is screen reader and screen magnification software. For those who are deaf and blind, braille display and keyboards are available. Other individuals might rely on speech recognition software, using voice to command if movement isn’t available. If mobility is limited, there are mouses designed to be used by foot, or with a joystick or roller ball. For those with extremely limited mobility there is also eye tracker technology which allows the user to move the website along with their eyes, and the list goes on, with more technological advancements coming out every day.
The main difference, Lynn explains, is that a lot of competitors in the field use mechanized testing rather than the hands-on actual experience that someone is having when they try to navigate a website. With a title like mechanized testing, it’s easy to picture some hulking, metal robot clacking away on a keyboard or furiously clicking a mouse, but the reality is quite different. The reality of this process is that an algorithm-based tester scans websites for coding that supports assistive technology, but as is common in science, the scanner often issues false positives. Lynn explains this reality is commonly known in the industry and the basis for WeCo’s approach, which to Lynn means, “you need real people. We just offer a different dimension by taking people right to the source.”
Once WeCo’s Certified Testers work with a product or a website, they take their results back to the client, and help work with them along the way to implement some of the tester’s recommendations. Not only that, they offer ongoing support for their clients in a number of areas relevant to accessibility, such as sensitivity training. On top of connecting clients to their audience, one thing that genuinely sets WeCo apart in the industry, is their understanding of the red tape and bureaucracy that often comes with the territory of large government agencies and organizations, and because of the knowledge that Lynn has gained in her many years as a civil servant, “managing accessibility is managing policy.”