by Karl Belanger
From the Editor: Karl Belanger is a talented member of our access technology staff. I am delighted every time I get an article from him. I think this one is particularly timely. In addition to articles and suggestions for articles, the Braille Monitor gets many letters asking why this or that device is not accessible and what we plan to do about it. In these letters the frustration is clear: “Why don’t companies care?” “How can they be so callous?” “Why can people be so mean?” Sometimes inaccessibility may be deliberate as when companies simply make a decision not to include it, but, more often than not, developers don’t think that blind people will be using their software, have no idea how we could if we wanted to, and know even less about screen readers, Braille displays, and the need to include in one’s design a way to do all of the functions one does with the mouse using a keyboard. The way we deal with a company that is obstinate is different from the way we deal with a company that is ignorant. One requires confrontation, the other requires education. Here is what Karl has to say about doing something positive when encountering an accessibility barrier:
Whether browsing the web or using an app on our phones, we often come across accessibility problems that make the site or app less useful. Reporting these issues to the developers helps companies become aware of issues faster and may even be the first time a company has heard about blind users using their product. When describing an issue, it is important to describe what is going on in as much detail as possible, along with what operating system, browser, and access technology you are using. The more you give the company, the easier it will be for it to locate and fix the issue. However, before we can send a report, we need someone to send it to.
If you can find an accessibility contact at a company, that is always going to be the best place to report any problems you’re having. However many, probably most, companies do not have dedicated accessibility support. When this is the case, look through any “support” or “contact us” pages for anything related to reporting problems with the site. If the company has a staff directory, look for someone who deals with the site such as webmaster to reach out to directly. General technical support or inquiry emails are better than nothing but are less likely to directly reach someone who can take action. You might also consider using phone or chat support to inquire if you can get the email address of the person in charge of the website to report a problem that you’re having.
Below you will find extensive information on how to gather the information you will need, letter writing tips, accessibility resources, and more. If you’d rather start writing right away, here are the main parts of an accessibility report:
As stated earlier, it is important to give the company as much information as possible to help it fix the issue quickly. This information should include:
Once you know where to send the report and have all your information together, it’s time to start writing. How you formulate your letter is certainly up to you, but here are some pointers to help get you started. Start with introducing yourself and follow by briefly describing the access technology you use, especially if you are writing to a company that does not have an accessibility contact. Here is an example of how your letter might begin:
My name is Karl Belanger. I use a screen reader to access the computer, which is software that allows me as a blind user to access computers by reading out the content of websites and applications as I navigate them. I’m writing to you because I’m encountering some issues accessing your site.”
Follow this by describing the issue in as much detail as you can, including what you’re trying to accomplish, how your access technology reacts, such as “my screen reader does not read the form labels” or “when the calendar is magnified it overlaps with other content on the page,” and describe the impact this has on your use of the site:
“While attempting to submit the checkout form on your site, nothing appears to happen after pressing the submit button. After I explored the page, I noticed a message at the top of the form reading ‘Please correct the fields in red below.’ My screen reader does not announce colors, plus as far as I can tell everything seems to be filled in correctly, which means it is impossible for me to complete the form.”
It is often helpful to suggest what changes will make the site more accessible. If you are not sure what can be done, go ahead and skip this section:
“Several steps can be taken to make the form more usable. First, when the form is submitted with errors, the focus should be moved to the error message. Next, the error message should list which fields have errors and possibly provide a link to the fields. Finally, any fields which have a required format, such as MM/DD/YYYY for a date field, should have this format provided to help users avoid errors in the first place.”
Optionally, you can include some resources on web accessibility that the company may find useful, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or the Apple accessibility guide if you’re writing about an iOS app. See the accessibility resources section of this article for a list of resources I recommend.
Finally, end the letter. Offer to provide any additional information that they may need and ask to be informed of progress on fixing the issue.
Please remember that, while not being able to complete a task can be frustrating, it is important to keep the letter professional. Companies will respond much better to a clear, well-written letter than an emotionally charged one.
An increasing number of companies are handling customer support issues over Twitter and Facebook. These channels are often some of the fastest ways to get a response to your issue, and they can also be a great way to report accessibility issues. Check the company’s social media pages and see if it responds to customer issues or directs you to a support account. If you find it does technical support through social media, whether with the main or a support account, use some of the same tips from the letter section when engaging the company. If on Twitter, start with a mention describing briefly that you use access technology, what kind you use, and briefly describe your issue. It’s okay to use a few tweets to do this. If the company responds, try to either get into a direct message conversation or request the best email to send something to, so you’re not limited by the two-hundred-and-eighty-character limit. On Facebook, follow a similar process, engage the company first, and give all the details once you confirm you’re working with the right account.
There are many accessibility resources that you may want to give the company. The first and most important is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG. WCAG is a list of guidelines that apply to any website or app; they are the generally accepted web standard and have been incorporated into the recent refresh of the Section 508 guidelines for federal sites. Here is the WCAG overview page from the World Wide Web Consortium site: https://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/wcag. Also from the W3C are a series of videos, called Web Accessibility Perspectives, discussing how web accessibility benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities. https://www.w3.org/WAI/perspectives/ Another quality resource is Web Accessibility in Mind or WebAIM, which provides a number of articles and checklists relating to web accessibility as well as a tool for helping to determine some of a site’s accessibility problems. https://webaim.org/
Both Apple and Google have documentation and guidelines for developers to ensure that their apps are accessible. If you’re reporting an issue with an iOS app, you might consider including the Accessibility for Developers page on Apple’s site, https://developer.apple.com/accessibility/ or the similar accessibility page on the Android developers site, https://developer.android.com/guide/topics/ui/accessibility/index.html.
When reporting an accessibility issue, it’s common to get either a basic acknowledgement of the problem, or possibly no response at all. If the company was unaware of the need to make its site accessible, it’s possible you may get a canned response with unhelpful suggestions like resetting your browser, trying another one, etc. If you get a response like this, just reply and politely inform the company that these suggestions will not work and it needs to fix its site. If you get an acknowledgement or no response, it’s fine to follow up in a week or two to inquire about the status of the issue. Polite persistence can sometimes yield better results than just one email. Either way patience will likely be required, and your best efforts may unfortunately not lead to any better accessibility. That does not mean that you shouldn’t try, as many companies are simply unaware and want to make things right.
The volume of information that you should include in an accessibility report may seem overwhelming, but the whole process boils down to a few simple steps. Report the software and access technology you’re using, what you’re trying to do, and what problem you’re experiencing in sufficient detail for the company to be able to act upon it. Adding in possible solutions, suggestions, and accessibility resources are optional extras, but they may help the company better understand what it needs to do and generally learn more about accessibility.
Here is the sample letter, as started in the section above, on writing your issue:
My name is Karl Belanger. I use a screen reader to access the computer, which is software that allows me as a blind user to access computers by reading out the content of websites and applications as I navigate them. I’m writing to you because I’m encountering some issues accessing your site. While attempting to submit the checkout form on your site, at https://www.myshop.com/cart/checkout.html, nothing appears to happen after pressing the submit button. After I explored the page, I noticed a message at the top of the form reading ‘Please correct the fields in red below.’ My screen reader cannot announce colors, plus as far as I can tell everything seems to be filled in correctly, which means it is impossible for me to complete the form.
Several steps can be taken to make this form more usable. First, when the form is submitted with errors, the focus should be moved to the error message. Next, the error message should list which fields have errors, and possibly provide a link to the fields. Finally, any fields which have a required format, such as MM/DD/YYYY for a date field, should have this format provided to help users avoid errors in the first place.
There are many resources available for you to help make your site more accessible and usable to everyone. I would recommend starting with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. These guidelines are the commonly accepted standards for web accessibility and have been incorporated into Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act for federal websites. They provide a technology independent way of measuring and testing the accessibility of your site. A great site for articles and guides on web accessibility is WebAIM, which stands for Web Accessibility in Mind. They have checklists for the accessibility guidelines, articles on handling forms, graphics, tables, and more, as well as a tool to scan a page of your site and have it report some, though probably not all, accessibility issues.
Please let me know if you have any questions, or if there is any more information I can provide. I look forward to hearing from you soon and working with you to get this issue resolved promptly.