With a weak economy forcing many state and local governments to cut back on services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s web-based information on disaster preparedness is more needed than ever. But, for individuals with disabilities, that information is difficult to access, according to guests who appeared recently on WAMU to discuss “Designing Accessible Technology.”
The discussion, broadcast October 12, featured host Kojo Nnamdi; Jonathan Lazar, Professor of Computer and Information Sciences and Director of the Universal Usability Laboratory at Towson University; Eve Hill, Senior Vice President, Burton Blatt Institute, Syracuse University, and Anne Taylor, Director of Access Technology, National Federation of the Blind.
The guests pointed out that Federal law requires the federal government to make information on its websites accessible to people with disabilities, but 90 percent of government websites still aren’t in compliance with the 508 accessibility standard—including the 508 accessibility website. (See Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.) The statistics are particularly startling given the current administration’s professed commitment to making government accessible to all, including those with disabilities. Moreover, “Federal government has the expertise,” says Lazar.
To demonstrate the problem, the show broadcast a recording of FEMA’s Ready.gov website as it sounds to a sight-impaired individual using “screen reading” software that turns text into spoken words. (Listen to the recording and show here: http://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2010-10-12/designing-accessible-technology)
The Ready.gov website describes how Americans can prepare themselves for an emergency, potentially one that is life-threatening. But, the spoken version is frustrating to follow, subject to frequent interruptions for HTML tags (codes, invisible on the written page, that control page layout).
“The worst part,” says Lazar, “is that information about hurricane and flood preparedness…is an inaccessible flash [file] where you don’t hear it at all. That’s a serious problem.”
I gave the Ready.gov website a try myself using screen reader included with Apple’s operating system. For the experiment, I selected Ready.gov’s information for “older” citizens—a group of people likely to have vision and hearing impairments. Again, sorting the essential information from the litter of HTML tags was deeply frustrating.
Accessibility is an important issue for everyone, because even those of us who aren’t disabled currently are likely to acquire disabilities as we age. Plus, technologies used to make websites “accessible” are making life easier for everyone through incorporation into smart phones, GPS and other devices. But, what is a convenience for some could be a matter of life or death for someone with a disability.
Making federal websites accessible is important and, in this economic downturn, more important than ever. This sounds like a project FEMA’s new Office of Disability Integration and Coordination should address.
FEMA, I hope you’re listening.