May 31, 2020

Waterloo tech worker Matthew Reynolds remembers what it was like for a colleague who required a screen reader, an assistive device that turns text and images into audio, to browse the internet.

“It was really cool to see when it worked, but when it didn’t, I thought, ‘Oh my God, how frustrating is that?’” he said in an interview.

If a website wasn’t designed properly, the screen reader malfunctioned. It often left his co-worker in a bind.

Seeing this increased Reynolds’s already growing interest in web accessibility, as he happens to work on the front lines of website design. He is on a co-op as a user-experience designer at Zeitspace, a Waterloo-based software design and development company.

On Tuesday night, he co-hosted a workshop intended for anyone interested in accessible design.

Laptops in hand, some 50 people filled Zeitspace’s office to hear him and fellow user-experience designer Megan Pollock speak.

Three people work on an activity at a table that helps them understand web accesibility.
Workshoppers take part in an activity that helps them think in terms of web accessibility at Zeitspace in Kitchener, Ont., on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (Patrick Spencer / Spoke Online)

With a deadline looming, the workshop, titled “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Web Accessibility,” was timely.

By Jan. 1, 2021, the provincial government will require websites run by public entities and organizations of more than 50 people to meet standards set out in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

Organizations that don’t comply face steep fines. Corporations can be charged up to $100,000 per day, according to the act.

Only websites created before 2012 are exempt from the AODA’s requirements. Even businesses run by the non-computer saavy will have to comply. For those people, the Ontario government’s website has tips for working with web developers.

“We’ve had a lot projects come down the pipe that require this kind of compliance,” said Pollock.

Specifically, websites will have to meet Level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that the AODA based their standards on.

User experience designer Megan Pollock co-hosted the workshop. (Patrick Spencer / Spoke Online)

Among other requirements, this means those Ontario websites will have to:

  • Be navigable by keyboard only.
  • Provide captions for all live audio content.
  • Have resizable text that doesn’t interfere with functionality.

In the end, what does a fully accessible website look like?

No different than any other one, said Reynolds.

“As a fully able-bodied person using that website, you may never know what changes have been made to make it accessible.”

He explained that accessibility depends as much on the surface of a website (features like adjustable font size or high-contrast colours) as the code inside that allows it to interact with assistive technologies.

During the workshop, this design ethos was defined with a simple three-word phrase taken from content designer Sarah Richards: “Accessibility is usability.”

The workshop was tailored to people who wanted to know how to meet the WCAG guidelines, but some attendees showed up because they felt accessibility is something they should be designing into their products on principle — a sentiment that both Pollock and Reynolds agreed with.

“I’m mindful of it,” said Divya Naganajan, a software engineer at Scotiabank Factory U, a local research and development company.

 “I want to be proud of my work, and as many people as possible to use it.”

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