Summary: A strict focus on accessibility as a scorecard item doesn't help users with disabilities. To help these users accomplish critical tasks, you must adopt a usability perspective.
I recently received the following question from a reader at a government agency:
I'm doing research on the accessibility of FooCorp XYZ portal technology. The only people telling me that it's accessible are the people who designed it, FooCorp. I need to know if this technology is accessible to people who use it with screen readers.
The specific product in question (here called "XYZ") was not included in our recent project on intranet portal usability, so I can't comment on its potential problems. We did find that most portal products have poor out-of-the-box usability, so one can certainly fear the worst. And it's never wise to trust a vendor's sales staff in matters of user experience -- the only good advice here is to check for yourself.
Such a check is easy: Simply ask four or five of your disabled employees to spend an hour testing the product on whatever sample tasks are realistically represented in the available version. It's important that these employees use their own screen readers, screen magnifiers, keyguards, or mouse replacements, and any other assistive technology they might use during their daily work.
Although there are thirty-nine additional guidelines for testing websites and intranets with disabled users, they're not important in a case like this. You're not conducting a formal usability evaluation to redesign the product. You're simply judging whether it helps employees do their job. After an hour with the product, they'll tell you.
The Accessibility Fallacy
The bigger point here, however, concerns a fallacy: the assumption that accessibility exists in a vacuum and can be scored without considering users and their tasks. Yes, there are technical criteria for supposedly making a website accessible. But even if you meet every high-priority checkpoint, users with disabilities might still be completely incapable of using your site.
There's a reason I chose to label our research report, Beyond ALT Text: Making the Web Easy to Use for Users With Disabilities. Everybody knows that it's accessibility rule #1 to provide ALT text for images so people who can't see pictures can hear the description read aloud. What the accessibility checklists don't tell you is how to write the ALT text. That is, what must you communicate to help blind users use your site?
Accessibility's business goal is not to get a high rating on a Section 508 compliance scorecard. On a website, what you really want is to sell more products to disabled customers. On an intranet, you want to get more workplace productivity out of your disabled employees. These sound remarkably like the goals of any usability project, and that's exactly what they are.
Of course, some usability issues are different for users with disabilities than for those without, but the overlap is remarkably large. Also, it's an oversimplification to distinguish between users with and without disabilities as if that were a dichotomy. It's really a continuum of people with more or less severe disabilities. For example, most users over the age of 45 have somewhat reduced vision and need resizable fonts, even if they don't qualify under the official definition as "low-vision users." Senior citizens' usability issues are different from those of young users with disabilities, but again, there are many similarities between the two groups.
Ease of Use is Key
An analogy: if you are working on your company's mobile strategy, it's not enough to ensure that your Web pages display on a cell phone screen. Such technical accessibility will do nothing to make mobile users use your site. We know from our study of early WAP phones that users refuse to use content and services that aren't designed for optimal usability on the small screen. Unless you ensure that people can easily use your site's mobile version, your efforts will be a complete failure. If it takes them forever to get content or if they constantly get lost, you won't be on their phones anymore.
As with low-vision users, mobile devices can offer only a limited amount of information at any one time. And, while exact design guidelines differ according to the context, user reactions are the same: if it's too cumbersome to navigate the site or understand the content, people will leave. The simple fact that it displays correctly in a screen magnifier is not nearly enough to make people use the site and read your information.
When you want to improve your website for users with disabilities, remember the real goal: to help them better use the site. Accessibility is a necessary, but not nearly sufficient, objective. Your main focus should be on the site's usability for disabled users, with an emphasis on how well the design helps them accomplish typical tasks.