AODA and You: First-Hand Answers to Who and Why?

An image of a smart phone with a screen filled with braille text in support of our first AODA post.

To paraphrase Wilford Brimley, the best reason to ensure your Web site is accessible is simple: “It’s the right thing to do.” 

But if you're a stickler for legality, as of January 1st, 2014, the Accessibility of Ontarians with Disabilities Act will be extended to include Web sites for public-sector and non-profit organizations with 50 or more employees.

Beyond the penalties and fines that can be levied upon companies for non-compliance, the best reason to ensure your Web site is AODA compliant can be summed up in Brimley’s folksy charm: it is the right thing to do for a significant proportion of our society.

Over the next couple of posts, we’ll get into the hows and whats of AODA compliance. We’ll talk about the business benefits that accessibility can bring to your business. But first I want to start by sharing with you the two most important Ws: the Who and the Why.

"Have you ever been doing research on the Web and, upon finding the perfect resource, are crushed to discover the Web site is in a different language than you speak and, ultimately, is rendered useless to you?” explained Jeffrey Preston, a disability advocate and Western University PhD candidate in media studies with a focus on disability policy. “That is the experience of many individuals with visual impairments when surfing the Web. Although popular Web site design programs, like Dreamweaver and common content management software like WordPress encourage Web accessibility compliance, far too many Web sites remain inaccessible to screen-readers like Jaws.

“There is nothing more frustrating than knowing there is a wealth of information available, but is simply inaccessible in the format you need. By taking a bit of time to ensure your Web site is compliant, you can help to make the Web an accessible experience for all.”

The provincial Ministry of Community and Social Services states one in seven people in Ontario has a disability. That number is expected to increase with our aging population. The AODA guidelines, as they relate to information and communications, are designed to give “people with disabilities access to more of the information that we all depend on.”

"All Web sites should be universally accessible to as many different people as possible,” said Glenn Barnes, the Tetra Society of North America’s Ontario co-ordinator. (Author's note: And my cousin). Tetra is a non-profit organization that recruits skilled volunteers to create customized assistive devices for people with physical disabilities. “When designing specifically for people disabilities, the biggest area lacking for many websites is the fact that they do not translate well onto screen readers for people who are blind.

“I think it is the often smaller and more universal considerations available that make websites better for people of any ability. In my experience, it is best that a Web site -- or any public area -- be designed for as many individuals as possible.”

And there are quick and easy (and often free) steps that are often overlooked, which would provide tremendous value to those accessing a Web site with assistive devices, Barnes explained. “Including small things like the ability to increase the size of the font or having tags over top of a PDF or a picture are small little fixes that can help individuals navigate the Web site much more easily.”

Our society’s view of accessibility has traditionally been fixated on physical disabilities. While the community as a whole is familiar with physical accessibility standards and measures, the development of the AODA principles revealed to many the wide range of issues that must be addressed to ensure accessibility for all.

"Too often when we think 'accessibility' we think or ramps and elevators,” Preston explained. “Early development of the AODA revealed Ontarians with disabilities were facing far more barriers than just architectural. One barrier often overlooked is that of information and communication.

“Rarely do we consider the large amount of individuals who communicate differently, whether it be individuals who depend on sign language or people who cannot see a computer screen. One objective of the AODA is to help organizations to begin providing information in multiple formats to accommodate those who communicate differently.”

As we’ll explore in subsequent posts, the benefits aren’t all ephemeral – they can translate into dollars and cents. In any business, attracting and retaining customers are key goals. And in an increasingly diverse and global marketplace, where viable competitors are only a click away, overlooking your Web site’s accessibility standards can unnecessarily turn away potential customers.

“If your Web site is one that has not been optimized for screen readers, you are immediately cutting out a group of potential clients who will not be able to access your goods and services,” Preston explained. “By taking the time to make your Web products accessible to everyone you are able to target a niche market that is all too often overlooked, giving you a competitive advantage in your field.”

And one of the goals of AODA is to ensure that our society doesn’t get any worse before it gets better. “The mandate of the AODA is simple: make Ontario accessible for all citizens by 2025,” Preston explained. “An important first step to achieving this goal is to stop creating new barriers.

“This is tackled by the AODA through accessibility standards that aim to provide organizations with guidelines to ensure that they aren't creating new barriers and ensure that service is provided the same to everyone, regardless of their level of ability.”

Up next, we’ll talk about key dates and requirements for your site. And we’ll look at some hard and fast numbers about why an investment in accessibility can not only improve your Web site’s functionality – it can also boost your business’ bottom line.

But first, we want to hear from you. We’d love to read your experiences with Web site accessibility – both positive and negative. What challenges have you faced? What successes have you encountered? And if you’re from outside of Ontario (or outside of the Great White North), how exposed have you been to accessibility standards?

As always, comments are open!

*Editor's Note: Click here to view the other three sections of this blog

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Questions Answered

What do I have to do to be AODA compliant?

What does Web accessibility mean?

How do I make my Web site accessible?

What do I have to do by Jan. 1, 2014 to make my Web site accessible?

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