A More Accessible Internet

Might as well stick with an Internet theme for the week. Today: making the Internet more accessible to people with disabilities.

I recently went about searching for housing assistance for a friend. To that end, I went down the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s list of New Jersey housing agencies. First, I was disappointed that one had to check so many websites just to find out if any public or subsidized housing was available in this state. Why isn’t this centralized already? As much as tech gurus talk about “disruption” and “innovation,” it’s obvious that little attention is paid to services that don’t promise a large financial return. HUD actually does have a section 8 (rent voucher) search tool, but it’s not as thorough as it could be, and it doesn’t address public housing projects at all. It also doesn’t produce links to websites, but rather phone numbers and email addresses for people to contact.

As for the hundred-plus websites I examined, most of them suffered from various problems:

  • Very sparse information, sometimes no more than the minimum legal requirement, which is usually just meeting minutes and the date and time of the next meeting.
  • Flash-based sites, which don’t work on all devices, and are worthless to people who rely on assistive technology to use the Internet–devices that read text out loud, for instance.
  • Sites where crucial information, such as phone numbers, is available only in image form, and such images lacking appropriate alternative text.
  • Images lacking alternative text in general.
  • On the flip side, overly complex, dense information that is not organized meaningfully. This can be just as bad, if not worse, than having no real information at all.
  • Little information about how to actually apply for assistance, or whether such applications are being taken at all.

Some of these problems are technological and could be resolved by following good standards. In fact, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) maintains the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which are freely available. The major points are not hard to grasp, either:

  • Web content should be perceivable. Can people who are blind or deaf see your content? Have you done everything you can to make this possible?
  • Web content should be operable. Accommodate people who only use keyboards, and don’t make content confusing or difficult to operate.
  • Web content should be understandable. Perceiving–knowing something is there–is not quite the same thing as understanding. Can your content not just be seen, but fully experienced and understood, including by people who are hard of hearing or may have limited vision or mobility?
  • Web content should be robust. Create for today, but plan for tomorrow. Keep an eye out for technologies that will improve accessibility in the future, and do what you can to incorporate them.

The guidelines go into much more depth on W3C’s site, and I fully recommend reading them if you are a producer of Web content. This goes double if you are providing resources for disabled people–such as through a government agency.

It’s disappointing that, even with our current levels of Internet penetration, providing government services accessibly via the Internet remains so inadequate. The major causes for this are likely insufficient budgets, which fail to attract competent staff, as well as the nature of having government services so heavily decentralized. Another possible culprit is simply a lack of knowledge of accessibility standards–they are not publicized much, after all, and one rarely knows such options exist unless they are being actively sought.

It should go without saying that housing authority websites are hardly the only public-facing government services that lack effective access for all people. The more local (and small) the government, the less likely it is government websites pass any sort of muster. And while I don’t think handing off such responsibilities to the private sector is a good idea, it strikes me as an excellent opportunity for public-private partnerships to take root, in which public officials can bring their expertise in managing and delivering services to their citizens, and private firms can streamline and scale those activities through their own technical knowledge. Another option would be to bring such expertise directly into government offices–but again, it takes money and a commitment to make positive changes.

On the one hand, the Internet has become an invaluable mechanism for delivering useful services to many, many people. But on the other, government continues to lag behind, especially at the local level, in using technology to effectively provide services to citizens. We can and should do better, and in that process, take care not to shut out disabled people, who have just as much right to those services as anyone.

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James
James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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A More Accessible Internet

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