All Things Accessibility

I’m Viktor Köves, a front-end engineer and accessibility specialist at Packback. I am incredibly passionate about accessibility and believe that accessibility is a moral obligation, legal obligation, and a civil right. Despite the many laws and regulations in place, I find pervasive gaps in accessibility – whether it’s at my local train station or on the online ordering portal of a popular fast casual chain restaurant that specializes in bowls and burritos. 😉

I wasn’t always passionate about nor an expert on web accessibility. So my intention is to share a bit of information on accessibility, and how designing technology with accessibility benefits all of us!

What is Accessibility?

A Brief History of American Accessibility

Prior to the 1990s, Americans with disabilities faced institutionalization and severe discrimination in employment, college access, transportation, lodging, and more.

Although major legislation in America didn’t pass until the 90’s, the groundwork that was done in the 1960’s and 70’s set the course for the accessibility legislation we see today. One of the major turning points for accessibility was the 504 Protest in April of 1977 where a group of 100 people with different disabilities staged a month-long sit-in demanding that the federal government honor their rights.

image showcasing a march for accessibility legislation
Judy Heumann (who passed recently) and other activists marching for accessibility legislation

But, it wasn’t until 1990 that the Americans With Disabilities Act passed, enshrining disability as a protected status and accessibility as a civil right.

Preseident George H.W. Bush Signing the American Disability Act
President George H.W. Bush Signing the ADA into law in 1990

If you’d like to learn more about the history of accessibility and accommodation, may I suggest listening to the podcast “99% Invisible”: Podcast: 99% Invisible, Episode 308: “Curb Cuts”

Here’s a quote from the episode that stuck with me:

If you live in an American city and you don’t personally use a wheelchair, it’s easy to overlook the small ramp at most intersections, between the sidewalk and the street. Today, these curb cuts are everywhere, but fifty years ago — when an activist named Ed Roberts was young — most urban corners featured a sharp drop-off, making it difficult for him and other wheelchair users to get between blocks without assistance.

I’m sure if you’ve ever used a stroller, had to walk a few city blocks with rolling luggage, or had a job that required the use of a dolly, those “curb cuts” had a positive impact on your life for that brief moment in time. In fact, if you’re like most, you probably didn’t even think twice about them. But, even something as small as a simple “curb cut” can make or break the day of a person with a disability. It allows people with a disability to get to work, to the grocery store and to the doctor, it impacts their everyday lives.

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

“The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 or ADA (42 U.S.C. § 12101) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability… the ADA also requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations.”
Source: Wikipedia – Americans With Disabilities Act

The ADA was later amended to clearly apply to universities, which is how it applies to Packback!

What is (Web) Accessibility?

Accessibility is often thought in terms of making sites work for users with disabilities, but it can be defined more broadly:

“Accessibility is the practice of making your websites usable by as many people as possible… You could also think of accessibility as treating everyone the same, and giving them the same opportunities, no matter what their ability or circumstances.
Source: Accessibility | MDN

What Are the Fundamentals of Web Accessibility?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of web accessibility guidelines made by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium). It is one of the most common sets of standards for accessibility, and it comes in three levels:

  • WCAG A – the lowest level of conformance
  • WCAG AA – a medium level of conformance. This is the most common level, what most websites aim for
  • WCAG AAA – the highest level of conformance, which can be hard to achieve as it is not possible for all content

What Are Some Examples of Accessibility in Action?

Example – OXO

You are probably familiar with the popular kitchen gadget brand, OXO. Have you ever wondered why the handles are so dang comfortable? Or why the tools are generally easier to use than others? There’s a reason, accessibility!
Sam Farber founded OXO after his wife Betsey was diagnosed with arthritis, and he witnessed the pain and difficulty she experienced when trying to peel vegetables. You can read from the OXO blog directly:

“This got Sam thinking: why do ordinary kitchen tools hurt your hands? Sam saw an opportunity to create more thoughtful cooking tools that would benefit all people (with or without arthritis) and promised Betsey he would make a better peeler.”

OXO set the bar for design with all users in mind, and is studied commonly by user experience designers and accessibility experts.

Example – Jacob

“Jacob is a paralegal in a large law firm, who just so happens to be blind. But, as far as Jacob is concerned, it’s the technology that’s handicapped, not him. When everything is in place, he can work just as fast and just as effectively as anyone in his office” Now, Jacob is a persona, a hypothetical user with certain needs to help us think about inclusive design, from the book “A Web for Everyone”.

An example of how accessibility helps somebody with a disability

Some assistive technologies Jacob may use include:

Jacob is unstoppable *if * the websites he must navigate for work and life are up to WCAG standards. However, many popular businesses and sites have yet to optimize their websites and meet standards leaving folks like Jacob to work, shop online, book a hotel or other everyday tasks that folks without a disability often take for granted. Access is a right, not a privilege.

Example – Color Contrast

Another example of accessibility in action is color contrast.In the image below, on the right you can see a table with six examples of color contrast compliance with text and icons. Following color contrast compliance is important because noncompliant text or displays can be unreadable or unusable for people with disabilities. Even folks without disabilities may struggle to comprehend or use noncompliant text or displays.

Color contrast examples

Accessibility at Packback

If you’re an administrator or faculty member utilizing Packback, this is likely what you’ve come to read all about!

Let’s talk about how our product & engineering team ensures accessibility.

  1. Design – we consider accessibility in the design process, ensuring we think about color contrast, our users that may be reliant on screen reader technologies and other automated tools, and more!
  2. Development – we seek to follow accessibility best practices, frequently manually test with screen readers and use automated tools in development. We seek to comply with WCAG 2.1 AA.
  3. Internal Quality Assurance – our own team tests our platform with screen readers and other assistive technology and run automated scans.
  4. External Quality Assurance – professional accessibility auditors double check our work, doing comprehensive annual audits of the Packback app to catch any issues that have slipped through the other steps.

Does Packback Work with Screen Readers and Voice Recognition Software?

Yes! We also get tested by external auditors who use screen readers (NVDA, VoiceOver, etc.) and speech to text software (Dragon) and our engineering team tests new features with screen readers to confirm that students using screen readers have a great experience on Packback.

Does Packback Include a Screen Reader, Speech to Text, or Another Accessibility Tool?

No, and we don’t plan to! There’s one simple reason – there are already great tools out there that work across a variety of accessible websites. As an example, Mac and PC computers already have options to enable high contrast mode, and all Apple devices come with screen readers built in that can be enabled in system settings. Packback is tested against and works with speech to text tools that users can use to control their computer, like Dragon. These tools are much more comprehensive than anything we can build, so our goal in accessibility is to ensure we work with the accessibility tools that are already out there, rather than building our own solution.

The Packback Compliance Center houses the important documents that back up our accessibility. In particular:

  • Our accessibility statement – explains how we seek to be accessible and what users can do if they have a problem. Our accessibility FAQ also answers some of our most commonly received questions.
  • Our V.P.A.T. (voluntary product accessibility template) – an industry document outlining our accessibility practices.

Request a Demo of the Packback Questions Platform

Curious to learn more? One of our friendly strategy consultants will be excited to meet you and discuss your course learning objectives. We will provide a free consultation to see if Packback would be a good fit for your class!

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