Embracing web accessibility ennobles all involved

illustration of username and password fields on typewritten paper

Photo by Tim Schoon.

Like many self-funded undergrads at Iowa, I worked a number of jobs to make my way through school. I flipped burgers, cleaned coaches’ offices at the Fieldhouse, did my homework at the library check-out desk, sold records at the mall. At one point, I answered an ad, posted by a student in the School of Social Work. “D” had experienced a high spinal cord injury, resulting in paralysis and dependence on others for many of his daily needs; he was one of as many as 54 million Americans living with a disability. Now he was seeking a live-in aide to provide physical and other assistance in his room in Daum Hall. For the next three years, I became “D’s” right-hand man.

Todd Weissenberger

Todd Weissenberger

“D” insisted on typing his own papers, even though he could not move his arms or hands. I’d watch him at the keyboard with a stick between his teeth, tediously cranking out 10 words a minute in WordPerfect, and I’d think, “Man, I could knock this out in about five minutes.” Day turned into evening into night, and still “D” would be tapping away on his IBM AT, amber characters slowly coming to life on a black screen.

Often, he’d write about the need for wheelchair ramps or automated doors or sign language interpreters, chronicling the myriad ways in which mainstream society failed to understand or adapt to the nature of disability and the needs of disabled people. The landmark Americans with Disabilities Act was still several years away; disabled people faced physical and attitudinal obstacles to everyday activities. They were, so to speak, stuck at the bottom of the stairs.

More than 20 years later, a lot has changed for people with disabilities. Like many once-marginalized populations, people with disabilities have entered the mainstream, found a voice, and developed social and political capital. The ADA, though far from perfect, provides some codification of the rights of people with disabilities to participate fully in their communities. Meanwhile, personal computing has likewise evolved—the glorified typewriter has given way to a multihued, point-and-click interface that allows just about anyone to whip up slick documents, spreadsheets, images, and web sites.

But despite these social and technical advances, many people living with disabilities continue to experience barriers to accessing information online. For these people, the Internet can be a source of frustration. Online forms can present an insurmountable challenge; YouTube video can become meaningless without a soundtrack; finding a phone number can be an arduous journey through a labyrinth of tabs and arrow keys and space bars. Seemingly simple tasks can leave a user out of context, unable to perceive content…lost. Like “D,” many users experience the Internet as a slow and arduous process, an uphill struggle that sometimes yields no results at all.

Curious about the University’s web accessibility policies? Visit cio.uiowa.edu/policy/
to learn more.

Meanwhile, the Internet—in particular the World Wide Web—has rapidly become the dominant communication mode of our time. For millions of people around the world, the process is the same: grab a cuppa joe, wander over to the desk, fire up the laptop, get to work. Every day, millions use the Internet to call Mom, buy shoes, read books, listen to music, follow current events, and keep up-to-the-minute tabs on friends, enemies, frenemies, and BFFs. Innumerable aspects of our everyday lives are now conducted online. This adds up to an inexcusable situation, wherein people with disabilities find themselves with limited access to the public and institutional resources they need to conduct business, go to school, read the news, and otherwise participate in mainstream society.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Quantum advances in personal technology make it possible for virtually anyone to gain access to online content. The web community has long maintained a set of standards and practices for accessible design—the digital answer to the ADA. Institutions worldwide have adopted some permutation of these standards to provide guidance in their web and technical design endeavors. When these standards are used correctly, information moves: web images are explained, web videos are captioned, web forms can tell a user what to do next. The experience for users with visual, audio, mobility, or other disabilities becomes more complete.

Some IT folks have expressed concern about adopting accessibility practices, and their concerns are persuasive. Times are tight, they say. Each new standard brings with it more keyboard time, more testing, more lines of code. To a degree, this is true, but developers also gain from such practices. Accessible code brings elegance and robustness to a site. Accessible web sites are more versatile, more informative, and longer-lived. Accessibility adds value, and it makes you look better.

But technical personnel can’t do it alone. Project managers and supervisors need to find ways to support technical staff in achieving these goals, and prioritize accessibility principles on par with security and other design requirements. Upper management needs to provide the leadership and vision to enable technical teams to do the best work they can do.

Accessible design is to web sites as ramps, automatic doors, Braille elevators, and other adaptations are to the world of brick and mortar. Technical systems, including web sites, are at their best when they count inclusion, access, and usability as core considerations. The choice to embrace web accessibility ennobles all who are involved, and reflects a commitment to excellence at The University of Iowa.

The last time I saw “D,” he was getting ready to take a road trip to Florida and I was on my way to Mexico, at the beginning of an odyssey that would keep me away from home for many years. After a few cards and letters, “D” and I fell out of touch. But I think he would have something to say about the web accessibility efforts that we’re pursuing at Iowa. He’d probably say, “Weissenberger, it’s about damn time.”


Todd Weissenberger is the Web Accessibility Coordinator for ITS Web Services. From 2002 to 2011, he was Senior Web Designer and Unit IT Manager for the University of New Mexico Center for Development and Disability. Todd also was a Senior Instructor in the digital arts program at the University of New Mexico Division of Continuing Education from 1999 to 2011.