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What is an Accessible Website?

The City of Oshawa, Ontario, is ahead of the curve. Its website reveals how it is dealing handily with an emerging, complex issue that will affect municipalities, including economic development departments, all over North America in years to come. Oshawa is already on top of it.

The issue is accessibility. Governments everywhere are implementing accessibility standards for people with disabilities. Accessible design means your product, service or facility can be used by everyone, regardless of ability.

The requirement to be universally accessible will increasingly apply to websites, especially those of governments. Just as buildings will need to accommodate wheelchair access, websites will have to enable people with physical or visual disabilities to view and interact with them. This is a challenge that few municipalities, and fewer economic development departments, have yet addressed.

Oshawa, a town of 153,000 just east of Toronto on the north shore of Lake Ontario, is an example of a municipality that knows what’s coming and what to do about it. On the home page is a button labeled “W3C.” That means the site is compliant with web accessibility guidelines published by the World Wide Web Consortium, a primary influence behind current legislative developments.

Clicking that button takes a viewer to a section of Oshawa’s site devoted entirely to web accessibility issues. There are instructions for changing text size (you can also use a button on the home page for this), and for enhancing readability in other ways. Readers with questions about the accessibility of the website can seek help via an e-mail link. All of these features apply to the Business Development section of the site.

Oshawa, like other Ontario municipalities with populations of at least 10,000, is required by provincial law to create and publish an annual plan for enhancing accessibility and removing barriers of all kinds. Here is a look at Oshawa’s 2011 Accessbility Plan.

Among the action items for 2011 are: a review of municipal software and systems for compliance with accessibility regulations; investigating the provision of instant messaging for the website, and investigating closed captioning technology to be incorporated into Council meetings and public meetings. An action item for the Economic Development Services department is to ensure that accessibility is considered and included, where possible, in the downtown master plan.

Part of the impetus for such accessibility plans is to support economic development and the goal of being a desirable community. In Ontario – as is broadly the case across North America – more than 15 per cent of people have a disability and this ratio will increase as the population ages.

In a statement that will ring familiar to any EDO working to build a creative economy, Oshawa’s Mayor John Henry says at the opening of the 2011 Accessibility Plan, “The City of Oshawa endeavours to ensure that policies, practices and procedures are consistent with the core principles of independence, dignity, integration and equal opportunity.”

While the advantages of universal accessibility are easy to see, achieving web accessibility will be a complex job for municipalities and economic development departments.

Legislative Requirements

The overriding challenge will be to meet the requirements of new laws. These vary all over North America, since jurisdictions have introduced or are contemplating laws with different requirements and timelines. We will examine the big legislative picture in a separate article in this series.

In the case of Ontario municipalities like Oshawa, they must comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005. Ontario was the first jurisdiction in Canada to implement and enforce mandatory accessibility standards applicable to both the public and private sectors.

A regulation that came into effect July 1, 2011, under the Ontario law requires mmunicipalities with more than 50 employees to ensure that by January 1, 2014 all new websites and the content on those sites will conform to web content accessibility guidelines – called WCAG 2.0 Level A – published by the W3C. By January 1, 2021, all websites and content must conform to the newer WCAG 2.0 Level AA.

Many jurisdictions subscribe to the WCAG guidelines, which will require quite a bit of study by economic developers. They are intended to make web content accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities, including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities and photosensitivity.

In one sense, implementing the guidelines, or any regulations based on them, could be an advantage for economic developers. Their web content will be simplified and more usable, especially with mobile devices. Also, major search engines give higher ranking to accessible websites.

Still, this change won’t be easy. Webmasters will need to understand a whole new set of terminology behind accessibility. This includes compliance standards, assistive devices such as screen readers and keyboard accessibility techniques, i.e. browsing without use of a mouse. Design concepts will need to be reconsidered, for example to avoid the exclusive use of color or image to convey information.

Consultants are available to assist with understanding the new concepts and technologies, and to evaluate websites for accessibility compliance. W3C offers an evaluation template and tools as a way to get started.

Design Challenge

A core challenge for EDOs is that complying with accessibility principles can produce websites that no longer have distinct features or modern technological appeal to help attract site selectors and investors.

To illustrate, look at the Government of Alberta’s international site, which encompasses investment attraction. The site is admirable in that it confirms to W3C guidelines. It was designed to take into account visitors who are visually impaired or blind and is compatible with popular screen reading software. It can be navigated using the keyboard or other assistive devices.

Yet the site consists essentially of boxes and straight lines, with little energy in the design. Though Alberta is blessed with spectacular and diverse beauty, none of that is displayed here – this site could be for any place.

One way to address this sort of problem and meet accessibility design requirements is to have a separate website. But the same issue arises as with mobility – to design, implement and maintain a separate website for a defined audience segment would double the demand on a department’s resources.

Select content management systems have been developed to eliminate this difficulty. They can automatically generate an accessibility-compliant website as an accompaniment to the main site. A visitor to the main site can click on an accessibility icon to gain access to a version of the site with accessibility compliant features, including screen reading capability.

It becomes apparent that as you plan to upgrade or develop a new website, accessibility can’t be ignored. Before considering solutions, though, municipal and economic development organizations will need to know more about the challenges to be presented by accessibility issues. This series will examine the legislative basis for those challenges and the technological and design elements evolving to meet them.

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