May 15 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). Its purpose is to get people talking, thinking, and learning about digital accessibility and users with different disabilities. The target audience for GAAD are people who build, shape, fund and influence technology and its use.
My first experience with accessibility and the web was back in 2003. I was redesigning a credit union website. Around that same time, the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) was dealing with a human rights complaint about the lack of accessibility on their Olympics website. In the end, SOCOG was found in breach and ordered to make its website accessible, costing them and their web contractor (IBM) a lot of money.
Soon after, the Australian government adopted accessibility standards. I kept thinking that it was only a matter of time before other jurisdictions and regulated industries around the world – such as financial services – would face similar requirements. So I coded the credit union site to be fully accessible. I even worked reached out to fellow Canadian Joe Clark, who had written a book a year prior titled Building Accessible Websites, for his advice.
The state of accessibility in Canada
It’s not unusual to find sites today that don’t meet accessibility standards or that haven’t considered them at all. Some of this is because businesses haven’t been held accountable or made to meet existing standards. But that’s changing:
- The province of Ontario have taken the lead in establishing legislated accessibility requirements called AODA to ensure equal access to the web and other services for those with disabilities. Other provinces also have legislation in the works including Manitoba and Nova Scotia.
- The Federal government published their Standard on Web Accessibility, which came into effect in 2011, building on earlier work that’s been underway since 1998. All Government of Canada websites meet this standard.
Why accessibility matters
- With an aging population many Canadians are expected to be disabled in some way and push for society to meet their needs and demands.
- Increasingly we’ve moved many aspects of business, government, post-secondary, and other areas online. These tools need to be available, especially where there are no other service options available or they cannot be accessed from remote areas.
- It’s the right thing to do. Good accessibility benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities, and creates a better web for all.
For this year’s GAAD we decided to conduct an accessibility audit of some of Canada’s top municipal and transit websites, to see how they handle accessibility and where they could improve. As part of this audit, we:
- Used accessibility personas derived from Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery’s excellent book on accessibility, A Web for Everyone, and put them in a Canadian context.
- For each site we evaluated, we developed a short user profile leveraging Environics PRIZM C2 segmentation data that classifies Canadians into one of 66 lifestyle types based on demographics, marketplace preferences, and psychographic social values.
- We then evaluated a single task-based scenario a persona with accessibility issues was attempting to complete and recorded their progress and the problems they encountered.
The first site we evaluated was OC Transpo, the urban transit service of the City of Ottawa, Ontario. OC Transpo provides transit services to nearly one million people in the Ottawa area with over 900 buses and 3 trains servicing over 375,000 riders per day.
Maria is a recent immigrant to Canada. Her first language is Spanish but she is learning English and French. Her experience with the web is largely mobile-only. She lives in a low-rent city apartment in a young and ethnically diverse neighbourhood in Ottawa, and enjoys getting out to see the city. Maria’s husband has the car for the day, so Maria decides to try transit as this trip is a little farther than she’d like to walk (her normal mode of transportation). Maria is using her smartphone to navigate from her home to the Hispanic Business Center at 565 Somerset St. Ottawa, where she hopes to meet with other Spanish-speaking professionals and explore new job opportunities. She visits the OC Transpo website to find out how to get there and how much it will cost.
Maria brings up the OC Transpo home page, but it’s not mobile friendly. There are only two language choices – English and French, so she chooses English. Since there’s no other languages supported she has to rely on her limited knowledge of English to navigate the site. She’s surprised the site isn’t mobile friendly or responsive so Maria has to futz a bit to get her phone to focus on the trip planner so she can find her route. She hasn’t used this planner before but soon figures out that she needs to enter the start and destination addresses, and then click the tiny button to get her route plan.
When the results are displayed, she has to zoom in-and-out to read them on her phone. They aren’t presented on a map, leaving her unsure of where exactly to go and how long it will take her.
After awhile she is able to figure out that she has to get the CARLING / ARCHIBALD and get an 85 bus, and that it will take 18 minutes for it to get to SLATER / BAY. She can see the destination address listed below this, but isn’t sure if the bus takes her there directly or not (she cannot understand “walk” in this context). There’s also no information on fare price. She clicks on the link that says “Presto” but that takes her to another website.
In frustration she gives up and goes to the Spanish language version of Google Maps and uses that instead.
She still doesn’t get fare information, but it gives her a much better idea as to where she is going and how to get there.
What OC Transpo could fix
- Make the OC Transpo site responsive so it is accessible to mobile users – especially for key tasks like planning trips
- Consider evaluating the languages of existing users and provide access to a multi-lingual interface
City of Winnipeg
The second site we evaluated was the City of Winnipeg.
Emily has cerebral palsy, lives independently, and gets around in a motorized wheelchair. Fine motor control and speech are challenging for her, but thanks to an iPad mounted on her wheelchair she is able to navigate the web without too much effort. Emily is moving into a new house on Chalmers Avenue in North Winnipeg and her contractor is installing a chair lift at the front entrance of her house. She needs to find information on getting the necessary permits for the work.
Emily does a quick search for the city website and brings it up on her iPad. She notices that it’s a very busy site with lot of links and information to sort through before she can find what she’s looking for. She eventually locates the Permits and Licenses area. There’s a graphic at the top of the page showing all the different kinds of permits. She eventually finds a link on the page to residential building permits and gets another big graphic showing when a permit is required.
The graphic has information about wheelchair ramps so she clicks it and lands on the Wheelchair Ramps page. The first link she clicks “Why is a Permit Required” displays an error page in a new browser tab. She can’t figure out how to get back to where she was so decides to start over on the home page. She searches for “wheelchair elevator permit” but all the results are PDFs that don’t have anything to do with permits. She ends up frustrated with the lack of information and goes to the Contact Us page and gets an online form. The form has a CAPTCHA at the bottom that isn’t accessible, so she keeps getting error messages. Finally she gives up and decides to call the city, which is doubly frustrating since her condition affects her speech and this is not her preferred option.
What the City of Winnipeg could fix
- Provide simple, clear navigation options
- Optimize search to provide effective results
- Avoid CAPTCHA on forms, or if absolutely required ensure that they are accessible.
City of Kelowna
The final website that we evaluated was the City of Kelowna.
Vishnu has low vision due to glaucoma and often experiences difficulties using the web. He usually uses his desktop computer at home and usually has to change text size or zoom in on a page. Sometimes he’ll even use the built-in accessibility features in his browser to browse a site. Vishnu’s neighbor recently told him that the garbage pickup days in his area are changing so he went to the site to try to find out what the new schedule is and whether the changes will impact him.
Vishnu loads the City of Kelowna site in his web browser. He spends a bunch of time looking for a link to “garbage pickup” but doesn’t see anything. He ends up clicking on the Residents navigation but this takes him to a page with lots of small text that he can’t read. He’s run into this sort of thing before so he uses the browser accessibility features to have the page read to him. But all the links have the same link name attribute and link text. The screen reader reads the same thing twice for each link, making the webpage “stutter”.
He eventually gets to the “Waste and Recycling” link, but it takes him to a page called “Waste Management” which is confusing. The text here is also small, and he struggles to find the information he is looking for.
He eventually finds a link to the garbage collections schedule in PDF but can’t read the text as the images and text are poorly optimized. He spends some more time and eventually locates another version of the PDF that will allow him to zoom in and read the text.
What the City of Kelowna could fix
- Improve the contrast on links and text – WCAG 2.0 guidelines suggest a contrast ratio of at least 4:5:1
- Avoid small text sizes – be more cognizant of various audiences using the site and the readability of text on the page
These are just some of the issues people run into daily. There’s so much value in investing in accessibility (and usability) on your municipal website.
Many thanks to Keith Schengili-Roberts for his help with the research.
If you’re interested in learning more about accessibility, it’s worth checking out some of these great resources on accessibility:
- The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) from the W3C (the same organization that sets the standards for HTML) lays out a stable, reference technical standard on accessibility compliance.
- Check out Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery’s book on accessibility entitled A Web for Everyone is an excellent resource on the topic of accessibility that’s worth purchasing.
- Joe Clark’s book Building Accessible Websites is a bit dated now, but is still filled with tons of great insights into building accessible sites and the many considerations.