Breaking down digital barriers

Perkins Access, a new service from Perkins Solutions, is eager to help make websites more accessible to people who are blind

Marla Runyan works on a laptop, with two large-screen monitors in front of her

Perkins Access has a team of testers, including Marla Runyan, who help organizations make their digital properties accessible to people with disabilities. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

Ashley Bernard is doing something thousands of Americans do every day. She’s visiting her hometown’s website to see if she can renew a dog license online.

But Bernard is blind, so a task that should be easy is very frustrating.

“There’s a lot of stuff,” Bernard says as she navigates around the website. “That makes it informative, but not well organized. If I want to find the dog license link, I’m fishing around.”

The website on Bernard’s computer screen could belong to any small town. A sighted person sees a photo of children playing in the town park under trees blazing with autumn colors. There’s a list of links for bill-paying, town services and so on.

Bernard can’t see any of that. Because she’s blind, she uses screen-reader software that speaks aloud the text on the page.

As Bernard explores the website, she runs into barriers everywhere. Photos aren’t described. Links aren’t clearly labeled. A seemingly endless number of options aren’t well organized. Even for an experienced Internet user like Bernard, navigating the website is challenging.

“People don’t understand that it takes a blind person longer to find things,” she says, a note of exasperation creeping into her voice. “So if there are a thousand links, I’m trying to find one thing in a thousand.”

Bernard finally gives up in frustration. “I’m like, okay, your website stinks,” she announces.

This isn’t the first time Bernard has had a bad experience online. And the accessibility problems she encountered aren’t unique to small town websites – they happen with far too many websites that people who are blind visit every day.


A passion for accessibility

Accessibility is not just Cris Broyles’ job. It’s his passion.

“Accessibility is the law,” he said. “But more importantly, it’s the right thing to do.”

Broyles, director of digital accessibility for Perkins Solutions, has a naturally low voice, so everything he says sounds like an urgent whisper.

That’s fitting, because Broyles tackles accessibility challenges with urgency. At Perkins School for the Blind, he helps make sure everything used by students, teachers and support staff is accessible. That includes videos, PDF documents, PowerPoint presentations and more.

But accessibility is bigger than Perkins.

With more and more essential services now online – from government agencies to streaming video, and from banking to ordering food – millions of people who are blind are online too.

That’s why Broyles is eager to spread the word about a new service called Perkins Access. It helps organizations, including nonprofits, commercial companies and schools, make their digital properties accessible to people with disabilities.

“We really try to help our clients understand what it means to be accessible,” Broyles said. “Don’t you want anyone to be able to access your web content regardless of whether they have a disability?”

Broyles’ boss, Vice President of Perkins Solutions Bill Oates, is also an evangelist for accessibility.

“Whether your enterprise offers global e-commerce, breakthrough high-tech development or online education, it makes sense to maximize digital accessibility for all users,” he said. “If it doesn’t work for every­body, it doesn’t work – that’s the message.”

Fortunately, most digital accessibility problems can be fixed with smart design. There are all sorts of techniques web designers can use to make websites more welcoming to people who are blind or have low vision.

Pages can be organized so visitors can easily find what they’re looking for. Photos can have “alt-text” descriptions (hidden text visible to screen-readers) that describe images. Graphic links, like buttons, can be clearly labeled. Videos can have audio description, a voiceover that describes what’s happening.

Perkins Access provides that expertise. Broyles’ team navigates through a client’s website, searching for features that aren’t accessible to people using assistive technology. Then they deliver a comprehensive report detailing problems and offering solutions.

It’s a win-win for everybody. “By making websites accessible,” Broyles said, “we not only create a more accessible world for individuals with disabilities, we make organizations more attractive to a broader audience.”


Making Notre Dame accessible

Erik Runyon was concerned.

He’s the technical director for marketing communications at the University of Notre Dame, and it’s his job to make sure its websites are accessible to every student – including those with visual disabilities.

Runyon’s staff didn’t have the specialized training to test for accessibility. But he knew it had to be done.

“People with visual impairments aren’t the majority of our users, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to get the information they need,” he said.

The solution arrived when a friend urged Runyon to contact Perkins Access. He did, and soon he and Broyles were making plans. They decided to focus on the undergraduate admissions site – the first place most potential students visit.

The Perkins Access team went to work, exploring the Notre Dame website with a variety of accessible devices. They clicked on links, checked graphic images, examined source code and more. They then presented Runyon with an audit report.

Overall, it was quite positive. “It turned out we were doing a lot of things right,” Runyon said. But there were areas that could be improved.

For example, a map displaying the location of admissions counselors couldn’t be interpreted by screen readers. A calendar using color-coded dates for campus visits wasn’t usable by people with color-blindness. Low-contrast designs made the text on some pages impossible to read for people with low vision.

Runyon’s team implemented the recommendations, and is now rolling out those same fixes to Notre Dame’s entire family of websites.

“We’re really getting knowledge that could be taken forward into successive projects,” Runyon said. “It’s about doing things right and offering a solid, quality experience to all users.”


It’s the law

There’s another good reason to make websites accessible: it’s the law.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires “places of public accommodation” to be accessible to people with disabilities – and the U.S. Department of Justice has long argued that websites qualify as public spaces.

But who decides if a website is “accessible”?

The Department of Justice uses the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines created by the World Wide Web Consortium as a baseline for ADA compliance. It’s a set of strategies that cover all aspects of a website’s design and functionality.

Not everyone follows those guidelines. A growing number of companies have faced class-action lawsuits over inaccessible websites. Some, including eBay and H&R Block, have reached settlement agreements. Others, including Bank of America and eHarmony.com, are still in court. Disability rights advocates say more lawsuits are coming.

“There is no excuse for this anymore because the technology that allows you to accommodate people with disabilities is available,” said Oates. “Accessibility is a prerequisite for anything that you do now. It is the right thing to do and the long-term pragmatic thing to do.”

For companies worried about ADA compliance, Perkins Access stands ready to help, Oates said.

“We have experts that really understand accessibility,” he said. “We know what the guidelines are. We can give organizations an accessibility roadmap on how to address issues and protect themselves from lawsuits.”

To accomplish that, Perkins Access turns to its talented team of testers. Most are blind, and all have 20-plus years of experience with assistive technology.

“Our team understands the importance of website accessibility because we live this every day,” said Marla Runyan, team lead and user of low-vision assistive technology on Mac, iOS and Windows platforms. “We know what works and what doesn’t work.”

“As someone with low vision, I’ve experienced many of the same frustrations that other people with visual impairments encounter when trying to complete a task online, but the site won’t let you.”

The same is true when a website is accessible. Users notice.


A different experience

Ashley Bernard is doing something thousands of teens do every day – visiting a university’s website.

The 23-year-old already attends college in Massachusetts, and she’s not thinking about applying anywhere else. But she heard that the University of Notre Dame’s website is accessible, and she wants to try it for herself.

It doesn’t take her long to notice the difference between this website and the small town website she visited earlier.

“Let’s find out how to schedule an admissions tour,” she says, her fingers dancing across the keyboard. “Oh, I found it! Schedule a visit! That’s what I was looking for.”

Bernard explores the website.

It’s well organized, with clearly labeled links arranged in a sensible order. There’s a photo with an alt-text description, so Bernard knows it’s an aerial view of the campus. At the bottom of every page there’s an “Accessibility” link in case she runs into problems.

“It’s not bad!” Bernard says, leaning back in her chair. “It’s good that I’m able to get information, or do the application process, without having to dig for it.”

She smiles. “As someone who’s blind, that’s a couple of points in my book.”