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ATU677 – WebAIM with Jared Smith

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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.
Special Guest:
Jared Smith – Director and Researcher – WedAIM
Website:
Wave Tool Link:
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—– Transcript Starts Here —-

Jared Smith:
Hi, this is Jared Smith and I’m the director of WebAIM, and this is your Assistive Technology Update.

Josh Anderson:
Hello and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 677 of Assistive Technology Update. It is scheduled to be released on May 17th, 2024.

Well listeners, yesterday was Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and today we’re celebrating with Jared Smith, director and researcher from WebAIM. We’re going to talk all about WebAIM, about web accessibility, about all the cool things that come from that. And you know what? Let’s go ahead and just get on with the show.

Visitors, yesterday was Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and I cannot think of a better guest to have on the show today than Jared Smith. Jared is the director of WebAIM or Web Accessibility in Mind, and he’s here to tell us about the great work they do, as well as talk about the state of global accessibility, the issues, and as much as we can pack into the time that we have. Jared, welcome to the show.

Jared Smith:
Oh, thank you. It’s good to be here.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah, like I said, I couldn’t think of a better guest for this time, and I’m really excited to get into talking about WebAIM, about web accessibility. But before we do that, could you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Jared Smith:
Sure. Yeah. So I’m Jared Smith. I’m the director of WebAIM. I’ve been at WebAIM for a long time, about 24 years now. WebAIM started in 1999, so about as long as there’s been web accessibility, we’ve been doing this work and I started in education and was a GT developer and programmer and I was doing some design and was able to get connected with the WebAIM group, and they haven’t been able to get rid of me in all these years, but it’s been a great career and really meaningful work to help do our best to improve the accessibility of online resources for those with disabilities.

Josh Anderson:
Awesome, awesome. Well, we are very glad that you’ve been there that long that you’ve been doing this. And before we get into talking about WebAIM, before we get into talking about web accessibility, can we just kind of set the stage for our listeners? Could you tell us why web accessibility is important to really all users, with or without a disability?

Jared Smith:
Yeah, yeah, that’s a great question. If we think of the impact of online resources, digital resources, web apps, mobile apps, things like that, it’s certainly quite ubiquitous. Almost everybody is using these things every day, and we understand the impacts the lack of accessibility and lack of usability can have on users, especially those with disabilities. And we know the prevalence of disability and just the types of impacts that this can really have.

So I think it is important. It’s not just important because we want to be able to access these things, but they’re becoming increasingly critical to the functions that we do every day. Access to healthcare and education and information and things like that are becoming increasingly digital and a lack of accessibility, barriers to those types of things are really impactful to actual people.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah, they definitely are, and I’m sure we’ll dig into that more as the conversation goes on, but I do want to make sure that we definitely get into WebAIM. So start us off with just what is it?

Jared Smith:
Sure. WebAIM is the Web Accessibility in Mind project. We’re based at the Institute for Disability Research Policy and Practice at Utah State University. I mentioned WebAIM has been around since 1999. We started as a grant funded project to help increase awareness around accessibility, primarily in higher education, and had some grants over the decades to do research and various things.

And as we started to develop expertise in these areas, we started to offer trainings and then website accessibility testing and auditing, other types of technical assistance and consulting around digital accessibility. And demand for that type of those types of services increased over the years, and now that’s primarily what we do. We also provide the WAVE accessibility testing tool, which is a very popular and freely available accessibility testing tool that we develop and provide freely to the community to help test accessibility. We do a lot of research. I’ll talk a little bit later about some of the research that we’ve conducted at WebAIM.

Our real mission is to expand the potential of the web for people with disabilities by empowering individuals and organizations to create accessible content. We don’t go in and fix people’s problems directly on their websites. Instead, we help empower them and educate them so that they understand accessibility, the impacts of accessibility, help people with disabilities access and use the web so they can then address the accessibility issues in their own stuff. So we worked with a lot of clients ranging from small nonprofits to Fortune 100 corporations all over the world.

Josh Anderson:
Well, that’s awesome. You brought up a great point. I think the education is such an important part because a lot of people aren’t setting out to make their things inaccessible. They just don’t know that these things exist and that they really do have to keep this stuff in mind. And I can’t fault someone for what they don’t know, but it is very important information. So I love that you have that education component for individuals just to let them know these things are out there and let them know they need to make their things accessible. So I do love that you make that available.

Let’s dig in a little bit to the WebAIM WAVE because I think that’s just such a cool tool. What kinds of accessibility, maybe gaps and other things, is it able to detect and how do folks use it?

Jared Smith:
Yeah, well, it is important to understand the limitations of automated accessibility tools. They’re just computerized things. They’re looking for algorithms and patterns of accessibility and inaccessibility. And so it’s a great question to understand that. If we look at international standards for accessibility, primarily the web content accessibility guidelines, which are fairly well understood and utilized set of guidelines, automated tools can’t check all of them. There are certain things that are going to necessitate human testing, and that’s one thing that WAVE does is it’s going to identify the accessibility issues or errors or barriers that it can, but it also helps facilitate human accessibility testing, helps identify things that as a human need to take a closer look at. It might be an issue. It even identifies accessibility features, but it then helps the user to analyze those to ensure that they’re actually providing a better end user accessibility experience.

It’s all freely available at WAVE.WebAIM.org. Our main website is WebAIM.org. You can go there for our educational resources, articles, have a blog, have an email discussion list, there’s a few thousand accessibility practitioners that are on there. So yeah, again, so what we try to do with WAVE is we couple our educational things to help inform about accessibility, increase awareness also with that automated testing to hopefully help people get a good understanding of the accessibility of their resources and how to make them better.

Josh Anderson:
You were talking a little bit about the research that you all do. So could you tell us about the recent really released WebAIM Million update?

Jared Smith:
Sure. So The WebAIM Million is an annual analysis of the top 1 million homepages. It’s something that we’ve done now for six years. Six, seven years ago, we found ourselves saying things like, “Oh yeah, no, this is one of the most common accessibility issues on the web, or these are patterns that we’re seeing in accessibility, detectable accessibility on the web.” We didn’t really know for sure, at least beyond our own anecdotal experience and some limited data that we had.

So we set out to test a whole bunch of pages and settled on a million of them, the top 1 million homepages, and we used the WAVE tool to automatically scan those pages, collect a whole bunch of data about accessibility, and then analyze it and analyze those changes over the last five years that we’ve been able to do this and see trends and patterns of accessibility over time.

Josh Anderson:
And since you brought them up, what trends does the newest update show?

Jared Smith:
Yeah, well, one is kind of a continued trend of lots of accessibility issues that are detectable. This analysis this year found 57 detectable errors on the average home page. So a lot of things. That was actually an increase slightly from the year before. Some of that might be due to a little sampling change we used in identifying those million homepages or more international non-English pages in our sample. And that may have contributed to a little bit to that increase.

But overall, the last five years, five, six years, we’ve seen about the same number of detectable errors, so not a lot of improvement. We also look at pages that have detected failures to those web content accessibility guidelines, and that number is about 96% this year. Pages had detectable WCAG failures. And again, that’s only the things that the automated tool can detect, which would indicate that the actual conformance rate with those guidelines is probably very, very low. And that’s a number that has stayed pretty flat, little tiny minor improvements in that over the last five years.

But one thing we did see this year is improvements in the actual types of errors. So we look at individual types of errors. There are really six categories or types of errors that are by far the most common that are detected on pages. The most common one is low contrast text, which is going to be impactful for everyone, especially for those with low vision. Next is images that are missing alternative text, so text that would provide some description for those images for users that can’t see them. That would be read probably by a screen reader. Missing form inputs, labels, so texts that would describe inputs very common. Empty links and empty buttons were the next two. So these are links or buttons that don’t have any texts that describe the functionality of what they do.

And then missing document language, really important for screen reader users to have that document language defined so the screen reader reads in the appropriate language. These are all web content accessibility themes are also easily detectable, and most of these are easy to fix, but those are the most common issues. But even though we saw an overall increase in the number of errors, we have seen improvements over the last few years in some of those categories.

For instance, low contrast text as the numbers are coming down, missing alternative text for images, quite a bit of improvement over the last five years, missing labels for inputs went up a little bit. Also, empty buttons. I think that’s probably aligned a little bit with the complexity of the web that we’re seeing and homepages are becoming a lot more functional, more buttons, more forms, things like that. And so we did see some increases there, but overall, a lot of issues, a lot of work that we still need to do, but some improvements in a few areas.

Josh Anderson:
Hey, we’ll take any improvement we can get. I mean, I was hoping you’d bring better news, but at least it does sound like some folks are taking some of that to heart. Are there certain, and I don’t even know if this is something that can be answered, but are there certain maybe areas where it seems like web accessibility is kind of getting better? Be it in, I don’t know, commercial business or education or higher ed or any kind of area or do you dig that deep into the numbers?

Jared Smith:
We do. Yeah. We actually look at a lot of categorical data for these homepages. We looked at the language of the page. The domain, is it .gov, .edu, .com, things like that. We looked at category, if it’s a commercial like shopping site, is it healthcare, things like that. And so we can look at those types of things and see where we’re seeing certain patterns of accessibility, increased failures, things like that.

We have seen some areas that have had notable improvements over the last few years. Education is a big one. Government, primarily areas where there’s legislation even as we look at the top level domain and look at countries like .jp for Japan and things like that. So we look at different countries. Those that tend to have legislation around accessibility and disability rights tend to have better results when we look at our testing. I think that serves as a bit of a model that we know that there are some things that can impact accessibility and government, education, things like that are some areas where we have seen some pretty notable improvements.

Josh Anderson:
Awesome, awesome. Yeah, it does seem like whenever you have that legislation behind it always seems to kind of help out. I know we see in the news every once in a while about big websites or maybe web ordering platforms not being accessible, and it seems like they put a lot of money and time into it after the lawsuits, so it always seems like they kind of think of that after the fact sometimes. But I’m glad at least you are seeing some improvement in some kind of different areas.

Jared, you also had a survey involving screen readers. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Jared Smith:
Yeah. We’ve conducted a series of surveys of screen reader users over the last, oh, I don’t know, 15 years. I’ll have to look real quick. It’s been a long, we do it every couple years. We do the survey, and a lot of that stems from questions that we had. We’d say, “Oh, screen reader users prefer this, or screen reader users use this type of technology.” And we didn’t really know for sure. So we started conducting these surveys. We get generally a couple of thousand respondents, which I don’t know that we can say it’s representative of all screen reader users, but it’s a pretty good response, to help inform digital accessibility.

It helps us collect data about screen reader users, what technologies they’re using, what browsers they’re using, what their preferences are for the web, what their perceptions of the web are. Is accessibility getting better or worse on the web and why? So that’s some other real interesting research that we have. We’ve conducted surveys of users with other types of disabilities as well. Those are all available on the WebAIM site and go to projects in the WebAIM.org navigation. It’ll take you to all of our research, including our most recent screen reader user survey. The results for that were published just a month or so ago.

Josh Anderson:
Now I know that some websites try to practice, and air quotes don’t work real well on a podcast, but “accessibility” by adding an overlay service that can be enabled for some folks as they use it. Could you tell us some of the issues caused by this practice of using the oh, kind of accessibility overlay?

Jared Smith:
Yeah. Oh, boy. I should spend a whole podcast on that topic probably. That’s a good one. It’s interesting. I think there’s no doubt about the potential implications of AI and these types of tools. I think that they can really serve users well if they’re implemented at the end user level where somebody with disability really has control over their experience. Our experience has been that when these overlays are implemented onto websites as a “solution”, I’m doing air quotes here, a solution for accessibility. And that’s often how they’re marketed, right? “No, just add it to your site and it’ll be compliant. You don’t have accessibility issues.”

They just don’t do a great job of that most of the time. They often are not really addressing some of those fundamental accessibility issues. They’re adding a lot of overhead to that experience, especially for those with disabilities that now not only have the page to understand and navigate and process, but also this additional overlay tool, which itself sometimes can pose some accessibility issues and barriers.

So we don’t really advise that practice at least unless maybe there’s already been some fundamental efforts to address accessibility on the site. And I think that’s one of the issues with some of these tools is they don’t get to the heart of the matter of organizations really understanding and fixing accessibility, engaging with users with disabilities to understand their issues on their site and fixing them at their root as opposed to just slapping on this overlay on top of it that very often doesn’t do a great job. I think there’s a lot of potential for that in the future, but right now it’s just our experience. I think the experience of many with disabilities has been that they very often are not a great solution.

Josh Anderson:
Well, and you said something really, really important there, Jared, that I haven’t heard a lot of other folks say, but really on the potential for such a kind of tool, as long as it’s at the user level and it’s their kind of choice. Because like you said, I know the thought’s there, but like you said, if you just make it accessible, then you don’t need this overlay. And a lot of times I know the folks with the disability, “I’m already using some sort of tool to access the internet and it may or may not actually work with this tool. So now I have to try to either use a new tool that may or may not be beneficial to me.” So putting that control in the user’s hands does make a big difference. So I hadn’t really heard it put that way, but I really, really like the way that you worded that.

Jared Smith:
Yeah, and one thing that we see from our WebAIM Million analysis, by the way, the results for The WebAIM Million are freely available out on the WebAIM site. WebAIM.org, you can see our full results. There’s a lot of data and information out there that you can access. But one thing that we found is a real significant increase in the complexity of home pages over the last five years. We’re seeing a 10, 11, 12% increase per year in the number of homepage elements, the number of things on a homepage, links, buttons, paragraphs, things like that. Right now, almost 1200 elements on the average homepage. That’s a lot. And we’re seeing this real significant increase.

And so I think along with that, what we’re seeing is a lot of technical debt in homepages. As they’re getting increasingly complex and bigger and bloated, and they’re using more and more third-party code and widgets and plugins and things like that, and frameworks where developers aren’t actually even controlling their own code anymore as they are using third-party code on these pages. That poses some real challenges, I think, for accessibility. If pages are getting more complex at a rate of 12% per year, how is accessibility going to keep up with that? It’s a real, I think, fundamental question and challenge for us in the field to think about how we can kind of rein in that complexity and that technical debt so that we can more effectively implement accessibility features.

Josh Anderson:
And you kind of led me right into my next question. Jared, if you could share just a few tips with our listeners to help them make their websites more accessible. Maybe a few, and I’m going to use the word easy very lightly here, but maybe a few easy things that they can kind of keep front of mind in order to make their websites more accessible?

Jared Smith:
The first thing isn’t a technical thing, but it’s just to really care, to give a damn. To really consider this, right? Understand the implications of accessibility, impacts it has on users to engage with customers and users of your site with disabilities to really understand the impacts that this has on them. I think when accessibility becomes real, when it becomes a human thing, not to just users generally or those with disabilities generally, but to this screen reader user, this user with a motor disability that I know that’s sitting in front of me, then those fixes become easier. So that’s kind of a high-level thing. What that does is then it drives some of those other implementations of accessibility.

As far as low-hanging fruit, basic testing and addressing the issues that I highlighted before, low contrast, missing, all these fundamental things on the web that are very common, readily identified and addressed is a great place to start. We know that if all we addressed were those few categories of accessibility issues, the overall experience on the web would be significantly better. We wouldn’t be at that number of 57 errors or potential barriers per page.

Along with that, I think some basic usability testing and user interaction testing are also some great things to do. Those are things that are not well tested by automated tools. Things like keyboard accessibility testing, just can you hit the tab key and navigate through a home page and use the functionality of those pages is one of the more impactful issues that we see, but also readily tested. And again, we’ve got a lot of resources on the WebAIM site. We have a testing methodology, an evaluation guide document that can walk users through some of that basic testing without having to have a lot of technical knowledge.

Josh Anderson:
Do your deferred listeners want to find out more about WebAIM, get access to some of these tools? I know that you mentioned it, but could you tell us again the website and then how to get to that WAVE tool?

Jared Smith:
Sure. Yep. So our main home page is WebAIM.org, W-E-B-A-I-M.org, and there’s a link there to the WAVE tool, or you can access it at WAVE.WebAIM.org and I’ll get you everything that you need there. And then we have dozens of articles, blog posts, some community tools, things like that, that are all freely available to help inform accessibility and increase that awareness, which I think aligns wonderfully with the Global Accessibility Awareness Day. That’s a big mission of ours is to help increase that awareness of accessibility. So we’re excited with the alignment.

Josh Anderson:
No, and we’re very excited as well because kind of like we talked at the beginning, education is such a big tool in this. And you kind of brought it up too, whenever you put the human face on everything, if you don’t know someone with a disability, and at least most of the places that I’ve talked to that don’t know a whole lot about accessibility, they think everyone’s kind of accessing their websites the same way. They’re using a mouse. They’re maybe using a keyboard here and there, but that’s about it. They don’t realize that some people are relying solely on keystrokes or using a screen reader or using an alternate input device or something else.

And if everything isn’t built correctly on the back end, these tools really don’t work and you’re just completely taking away access. And that could be to someone who wants to buy your product or access your service, or like you said, with governments and things like that, even have access to their government and all the things in there. So we know education is a huge part of it, not just on how to fix these issues, but the fact that they exist and just kind of how to really touch on them and really put them front of mind. And I don’t know. I’ve always told folks it’s a lot easier to build them in from the very beginning than it is to put them on at the very end, but as long as you’re kind of doing them at some time, at least you’re getting them in there and giving people access to your things.

Well, Jared, I cannot thank you enough for coming on, especially here, right around Global Accessibility Awareness Day. I know we’ve used WebAIM quite a few times here just again for education to understand better, to know what we’re doing a little bit just in our program or even if we’re trying to set someone up with assistive technology and having nothing but issues to kind of find out if it’s us, our training, the program or the website itself, and which one is actually causing some of that problem. So again, thank you so much for coming on, for telling us about WebAIM and for talking about website accessibility with us.

Jared Smith:
I appreciate the invitation. Thanks for having me.

Josh Anderson:
Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? If so, call our listener line at (317) 721-7124. Send us an email at tech@Eastersealscrossroads.org or shoot us a note on Twitter @InDataProject. Our captions and transcripts for the show are sponsored by the Indiana Telephone Relay Access, Corporation or InTRAC. You can find out more about INTRAC at relayindiana.com.

Special thanks to Nicole Prieto for scheduling our amazing guests and making a mess of my schedule. Today’s show was produced, edited, hosted, and fraught over by yours truly. The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the INDATA Project, Easterseals Crossroads, our supporting partners, or this host. This was your Assistive Technology Update. And I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. We look forward to seeing you next time. Bye-Bye.

 

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