Annie Maxwell, who is blind, shows how she uses a software program called a screen reader to access web pages.
Annie Maxwell, who is blind, shows how she uses a software program called a screen reader to access web pages. - 
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One out of 12 people ages 18 to 64 in the United States identifies themselves as having a disability. Whether it’s a physical or learning disability, it can be difficult for those people trying to access the internet.

A 1998 law known as Section 508 requires the federal government to make information technology accessible for everyone on all platforms, but states don’t have the same legal responsibility.

"States at this point are not really required to be accessible or to meet any standard like the federal websites are," said Nikhil Deshpande, director of GeorgiaGov Interactive, which oversees Georgia’s website and publishing platforms. "But this is something within Georgia we decided we wanted to do.”

So developers in Georgia have been redesigning the state’s websites to make it a little easier for people with disabilities to access information. Georgia.gov is coded so a screen reader provides audio descriptions for people with visual impairments and other disabilities. The fonts are larger, there’s a strong color contrast and the links and photos are descriptive.  

John Rempel, a quality control and training specialist, performed audits of the state's website at the AMAC Accessibility Solutions and Research Center at Georgia Tech.

“We’re looking at a larger senior population. The need for accessibility is greater than it’s ever been,” Rempel said. “We’re all going to have some disability at some point in our lives, whether it’s a temporary disability, like a sprained or broken arm or reduced vision as we get older, reduced hearing.” 

Rempel has low vision, so changes he recommends to state agencies and universities benefit him. He said AMAC recently expanded to 50 employees and has a growing international clientele.

“I think the business community is starting to realize that there’s a profit share here that they’re missing out on as well,” Rempel said. It’s not only the right thing to do but also profitable thing to do.”

Rempel said many websites are not very accessible. He shows off a link on a website that ends in “/2853299570343119981.”

“It’s a series of numbers, and that might not make a lot of sense for a person who’s blind accessing it using a screen reader,” Rempel said.

Part of the problem with making sites more accessible, Rempel said, is that it’s hard to tell when they’re not. “For example, you would never know that an image doesn’t have an alternative tag that’s read by a screen reader unless you’re actually using a screen reader,” he said.

Alternative tags are like audio captions that describe a picture on a website.

Kendra Skeene, director of product at GeorgiaGov Interactive, said adding things like alternative tags is actually a simple task, but most developers often only have the general user in mind. 

“They’re thinking of how they experience a website, and that must be how everybody experiences a website,” Skeene said. “And I’ve even heard people say, ‘Well, if they can’t see my advertisement, then I don’t need them on my site.’'

Skeene added that "they’re cutting off a huge percentage of people.” 

So far, Georgia has upgraded more than half of the 130 state agencies' websites to federal standards. And, last fall, Deshpande’s team won a national accessibility award for Georgia.gov.

Hadi Rangin, an accessibility expert at the University of Washington who is blind, said most developers and designers are not being taught how to code for people with disabilities.

“At the higher education level, we are not teaching to our developers or designers or future programmers about accessibility, so how should we expect that they know about accessibility?” Rangin asked.

Some universities, like his, are now integrating what’s become known as “inclusive design” as part of their curricula.