Web design, information architecture, the digital divide, and how it impacts people with disabilities (WARNING: Long post)

Recently, I had a conversation with someone about one of my concerns regarding my current WordPress template I am utilizing for my site. One of those key concerns being, whether it was accessible friendly – or accessibility ready. It was not tagged as such. I will not lie: I own the fact I want something that is both pretty and useful, visually stimulating while easy for as many people to use as possible.

At the end of the day, though, I want to make sure people with visual disabilities can use the site and access the resources with reasonable effort. In conversation, I mentioned how I was going through the current themes and how the ones I encountered thus far did not meet what I wanted from WordPress templates. My standard of both muted colored yet visually appealing while still accessibility ready appeared too high a consideration for some of the themes. He suggested that most of the popular browsers should access the site fine.

That was where I needed to clarify what I meant by accessibility ready.

Fortunately so far, despite that my current theme is not tagged as accessibility ready, one of my friends in Colorado who experiences visual disabilities had no trouble using my site. I was relieved to hear this, as it saved us both a lot of work. If anything in the template later ends up changing that, I hope they can let me know and I can do what I can to fix it. Should it come to making graphics that subscribe to the accessibility ready marked themes out there, just so I can make my site more accessible, I will.

Considering these recent conversations, I felt the itch to muse about it on my blog: the topic of the digital divide, and how it impacts people with disabilities.

During my earlier jobs prior to my long-term career as a librarian, I learned something from all of them. One year in Starbucks gave me some resilience in customer service that became paramount to success in future jobs. My work in Disabilities Services as a specialized typist in Hindi and being Graduate Assistant (GA), though, was when I really started to consider important social issues. Working a year and a half at Disabilities Services in the University of Colorado and my final semester as a GA, gave me both opportunity and privilege to work with some of the best people you can. A lot of my experience there gave me both the worldliness and skillsets that prepared me for working in public services and academic libraries alike.

If the least, Disabilities Services was where I became more aware of the barriers that keep people with disabilities from accessing the same resources as others.

When libraries speak of the digital divide, it is not some mere colorful fantasy landscape where people are divided from the technology in a world elsewhere. It is not a world portrayed in science fiction and dystopic settings, no. The reasons why though is not what one might think.

That fantasy landscape is not a fantasy in the real world – it is right here in reality.

Social inequalities are not some conjecture someone indignant screams about. In the libraries, I see those social inequalities at play. Everyday.

Before I go further, I should perhaps take a brief moment to define a digital divide. A digital divide is the significant gap between those who have convenient access to computers and the Internet, and people who lack it. By extension, this means unequal access to information and resources that have become a necessity and not a luxury. This divide can come from a myriad of factors, including being raised in a culture or environment where opportunities to engage such technology were or are inexorably limited. As a result, these people are kept from optimally utilizing tools for information access, tools that are increasingly becoming crucial to participating in everyday business and not just education.

In the case of the United States, we have multiple considerations that contribute to our digital divide. Among these considerations, people with disabilities are at a disadvantage when trying to access the same information someone without disabilities can with minimal effort. They are impacted by this digital divide in many ways. Despite that the American Disabilities Act mandates that we do what we can to change this, there are still institutional forces that make – and perpetuate – obstacles for people with disabilities.

The situation today is certainly an improvement from years ago. I will not argue against the fact we have many helping technologies that assist people with disabilities and keep them on an even playing field – all that ADA requires. Everyone who is an ally or a person with disabilities had learned how to count their blessings early on, so I want to put this out in advance for anyone who may assume otherwise.

Having these advancements though does not mean people with disabilities are able to fully reap the benefits of these technologies.

These advancements do not discount whatsoever that the digital divide still exists for individuals with disabilities.

It also does not mean that these technologies are without downsides or need for a person on the other side to help them work, either.

In my day job, I have the privilege of working with Digital Commons for our institutional repository – in layman’s terms, it is a type of digital library.  There is a nuanced difference between these two terms, which I will save for another discussion. Nonetheless, Digital Commons has been a wonderful platform for minimizing worries about whether people can access the content on my site. They adhere to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines practices (WCAG), make sure the accessibility statement is embedded in all repositories subscribed to them, and are friendly and open to any feedback for improvement. The metadata I construct for visual items contain descriptions, thus serving similar purpose to alternate texts. Should I need to be doing a little more later down the line, I will. Social change and advocacy for equality is an ongoing process, and each generation of the movement always finds something else later down the road that needs work (as the process should be).

Still, regardless of my work with Digital Commons, I know not every platform for building websites or other forms of information architecture is WCAG friendly.

When I realize web design cannot reach out to people with visual disabilities, yet are dependent on a platform, I dread that many platforms are less flexible to manual HTML coding. With WordPress, I can implement some HTML and CSS, but the scope of my implementations remain significantly limited.  Again, because I regularly test my themes out despite the accessibility ready tags on my templates (or lack thereof), I am thankful I can work with this at the time. WordPress starting the initiative to make all their content WCAG compliant in 2016 likely plays no small part in this, as well. Still, I know if I had the ability to use HTML more liberally, I would have the WCAG document open in another window and make sure all the right tags are used, just for vigilance’s sake. These tags are things assistive technologies depend on for conveying the right information. They help make a well needed bridge for closing the digital divide for people with disabilities.

In short, anyone who is looking at web design platforms might have obstacles in the way of allowing people with visual disabilities access their content. These obstacles contribute to the digital divide that keeps people with visual disabilities from accessing the goodness that is digital content. People working with websites may not think about it too much because they need not to experience the other side. Perhaps due to my background in Disabilities Services and Academic Libraries, I am of the mind one needs to both be aware of this and work with it however they can. Making sure as many people as possible can access your content is not only the law in some cases, but always the right thing to do.



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