Web accessibility is about experience, opportunity, and inclusion. Not just coding.

Michael Hingson CVO
February 11, 2021

Joining a company and becoming a part of its world and universe can be a pretty daunting experience. Being the new kid on the block has pluses and minuses. The pluses include your own personal expertise and experience, getting the opportunity to be a student again, discovering lots of new treasures and nuggets of knowledge, and getting the opportunity to meet a whole new circle of people inside and outside of the company. The minuses include needing to take time to get up to speed on the company’s products, culture, policies, and procedures; discovering the challenges that the company faces in the outside world, and determining, with your colleagues, how you fit in. All of this makes up what I call the “team experience”.

I am currently going through this process with accessiBe. How well I do, or how well anyone does in such a situation, depends on how one decides to view the experience. I said earlier that it could be daunting and that is true. It can be a negative or positive experience, it all depends on whether one wants to do this daunting. For my part, I view all that I am experiencing with accessiBe as an adventure. Already I have learned many things and I have come to some realizations and conclusions that I never would’ve thought about if I hadn’t suddenly been thrust into the middle of a particular debate. I want to share some of my thoughts with you.

accessiBe is changing the conversation about accessibility

When I was considering joining accessiBe, and since I joined the company, I have been exposed to a not so quiet struggle about where accessiBe fits into the world. The accessiBe team, and over a hundred thousand customers who use the product, have decided that accessiBe is a good product and that it is helping to make the Internet more accessible. accessiBe users, blind and others, indicate that it helps them use and browse websites much better than before. accessiBe customers say they like the fact that they can easily make their websites usable, functional, and inclusive for all by using this product.

There is, however, another side. This other side says that accessiBe is not truly making the Internet accessible. They say that using the so-called “overlay technology” can, at best, only be a temporary fix and, at worst, not make websites accessible. This side claims that the only way to truly provide “accessibility” is for someone to hardcode into a website all the things that make the site accessible according to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), as well as other information put out by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This other group of people has gone so far as to question the accessiBe business model because accessiBe charges a monthly fee of $49 to provide “website accessibility” for its customers. I’ll come back to the business model in another article.

Accessibility is not about just coding

Now, I want to discuss this whole concept of “accessibility” and what makes it happen. Can accessibility only be accomplished and maintained through coding? Is coding even a real part of the definition of accessibility? I believe the answer to these questions is no, and if you would have asked me the same question years ago, long before I knew about accessiBe, I would have given you the same response.

So, what is accessibility? Accessibility is an experience. A website is not accessible because someone calls it so, or writes some code, but rather it is accessible because the users of the site can experience it whether they happened to be persons with a disability or not. Some in the coding and software development world understand this. They strive mightily when they are hired to work on a website, to ensure that the experience of all who come to the site is a good one. They construct menus so that people with screen readers can interact with them, low vision (or vision impaired) persons can see them by changing contrast, font size, and other things; and some even work to address the issues and concerns held by persons with other disabilities. 

One would assume that every person who is involved with constructing and maintaining websites has the proper knowledge, skills, and commitment to ensure website inclusion for all. Unfortunately, this is by no means the case. Every day this becomes more and more true as more and more websites are being created at an ever-increasing rate.

Another problem with our poor website coding and development group space is that it is all too easy to break accessibility simply by someone going onto the site and adding a new element, such as an image without appropriate alt text and other appropriate information. As many of us know, images are only the tip of the iceberg. The bottom line is that coding is only as good as the website owner and website developer are at ensuring that everything is done to keep the user experience fully inclusive. It simply doesn’t happen. Furthermore, even for a small website, this can be a pretty expensive proposition.

A few years ago, we started to see companies come online who said that they could make your website accessible simply by inserting a line of code. These companies produced what some call “overlays”, which actually don’t change the code of the website but rather create an experiential environment that is transmitted to a user’s web browser that makes, or at least possibly makes, the website accessible. The problem with many of the so-called overlay technology companies is that their products either change the look and feel of the website or they may have made one page or they only provide accessibility for UI and design-related adjustments, without any screen-reader or keyboard navigation adjustments which are the 2 most important and challenging aspects of web accessibility. They do not have a mechanism to ensure, like coders, that accessibility would be maintained. In other words, these companies produced a product that did not necessarily provide any kind of assurance that the user inclusive experience would be ongoing.

accessiBe redefines accessibility

In 2018, accessiBe came into being. The difference between accessiBe and overlay solutions was that accessiBe created an extremely sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) model that would make the user experience totally inclusive. Furthermore, it would continuously monitor the websites of all of its customers to ensure that when changes were made to the site, they would automatically be adjusted to fit the model of AI-driven and maintained accessibility. I have not encountered any other companies that have taken providing a full inclusive accessible user experience to this level.

In fact, I came upon accessiBe and proceeded to research more about the company specifically because of the experience I had when using it. I was entering a website and was greeted with a voice message that instructed me on how to use the website in screen reader mode. I’m happy I obliged because what came next amazed me. Immediately the website became accessible and I was able to use elements with my screen reader that hadn’t been available to me before. Being able to experience the website before accessiBe’s adjustments and then after, in a matter of seconds, was pretty incredible, to say the least. 

I made the decision to add accessiBe to my site (www.michaelhingson.com) as well because I wanted to share this experience with others. As a screen reader user myself, I knew that certain elements of my website weren’t accessible. For example, menus that weren’t operable with assistive technology and keyboard navigation, headings that were out of ordering for the screen reader, images that lacked descriptions, and so on. Once I implemented accessiBe, my website automatically became much more accessible and all those things were just fixed.

In a sense, whether anyone likes it or not, accessiBe is redefining the definition of accessibility. Essentially, accessiBe is saying that a website is accessible when a user can visit the site and take full advantage of all of the features that the website has to offer without changing the way they have to interact with the website. This includes how they use their assistive technology, such as is the case with blind persons and screen readers. Also, accessiBe is saying to the world that it need not pay a huge price for this because it should be achievable for everyone, thus allowing us to scale web accessibility. accessiBe is saying to the world, “is accessibility and the user experience all about coding, or is it something else?”.

Users care about experience, not coding

Let me answer the question this way. Users don’t care what makes the website experience possible. They only care that they can have a fully inclusive experience. While all of us can debate the right way and wrong way to make a website experience inclusive, the bottom line is that users not only don’t care about this, but they will become quite angry if one side destroys or handicaps the efforts of the other. This is especially true where accessiBe is concerned because accessiBe already in the past 2 years has made over 100,000 websites accessible using my definition. Coders may disagree that those websites are accessible, but the users will not disagree with the fact that they are accessible. That is all that is relevant.

The reality is that no matter how hard we all try to make it possible for software developers, website designers, and website coders to make every website user’s experience inclusive it isn’t going to happen. Already there are way too many websites and there are too few knowledgeable coding people. Even if magically today every school, college, university, and trade school suddenly began teaching all of their students how to code with accessibility in mind, their total effort would be a drop in the bucket.

accessiBe has already proven its worth and value. As I indicated above, there are over 100,000 websites utilizing this product and all of those website owners continue to use accessiBe. Yes, all they do is sign up, pay a fee, and then forget about it for the most part. It is unrealistic to think that all of the website owners in the world are going to take a lot of time to understand accessibility much less become intellectually and emotionally committed to it. Many of them probably will always only consider doing something with the website in order to prevent litigation. Another group will have a more emotional tie to wanting to do the right thing. Both groups are right and if accessiBe can help with that then we should all support it.

Making accessibility an experience that can be reached and maintained

accessiBe will also be one of the first to say that there is full and total room for absolute coding by website designers and developers in order to make the website functional from an experience point of view for persons with disabilities. Again, the user experience is not a static thing. As websites change, as guidelines and standards change, and as the market of persons with disabilities becomes more sophisticated and advanced, everyone, website owners and all, who brings those sites to the world must be able to respond by immediately and fully keeping sites up to date and inclusive. 

accessiBe brings a whole new level of rapid response to this process and, at no additional cost. As changes are made by accessiBe to its product in order to resolve any access issue for even one website, by definition of the way accessiBe works that change is automatically and immediately rolled out to every website and its customer base. That is just the nature of the beast of artificial intelligence and a cloud-based system. How can we ever argue with that?

We need to come to terms with the fact that it is time for us to recognize that accessibility is an experience that can be reached and maintained in a number of different ways. There is no right or wrong way; There is only making it happen so that everyone has the same opportunity to use every website.

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