Building a web application that’s accessible to people with disabilities is a challenging endeavor. Every day, our design and development teams strive to create engaging and dynamic user functionality for our campus partners. It’s also important to us that everyone can benefit from OrgSync regardless of any disabilities they may have. Too often we find these goals at odds with one another. Moreover, information on building accessible applications usually covers basic approaches but lacks depth; ensuring an entire application is accessible can be a daunting task.
A developer’s introduction to accessibility comes from Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 508 was added to the Act in 1998 with the intent to provide accessibility standards for computers and the software they run. These standards ask developers make applications accessible to a person using only a keyboard, and to provide additional behind-the-scenes information screen readers can utilize to create a better experience. Section 508 standards are reasonably easy to implement and provide valuable functionality. However, in the last 14 years a great deal of technological change has occurred.
The World Wide Web Consortium, the standards body of the Internet, has stepped up to fill in the gap. They’ve created a set of accessibility standards designed for modern applications which they call Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA). ARIA standards complement the existing 508 standards by providing a more modern toolset for web developers. This helps to close the divide between accessibility and modern user interfaces. Implementing ARIA is not a trivial task and is not part of any legal requirement. As a result, most developers have never heard of ARIA or have very little experience with it.
Modern applications today, such as OrgSync, are built using a combination of freely available prebuilt components in addition to custom in-house work. These free components allow development teams to work more rapidly by preventing them from having to rebuild commonly used components. They are well tested and vigorously scrutinized by the software community, but often lack ARIA support. Not using these components would mean significant setbacks to the pace of our development. Building everything ourselves is not practical and the slowed progress would likely hurt our business. Once again, accessibility finds itself at odds with a modern development process.
There is no panacea when it comes to making applications accessible. However, leaving people without functionality because of disabilities is unacceptable. Our solution has been to create an internal task force to educate the Company on matters of accessibility and to implement these standards in OrgSync. Through internal trainings we’re making sure all members of the design and development teams are up-to-date on ARIA and advanced accessibility techniques. We intend to help the software community by updating many of the free components we already use so they meet modern accessibility standards. We’re also releasing our own work for free so other members of the community can leverage what we’ve done. Recently our team released an ARIA plugin for a widely used component called jQuery.
Renewing our efforts have helped to create an internal roadmap with a clear vision for the future. Our team is poised to make OrgSync a truly great experience for people with accessibility needs and intends to reach a loftier goal than the legal minimum outlined by the standards in Section 508. OrgSync is a multifaceted application with diverse functionality and it will take time to achieve our goal, but we deem this a higher cause we must pursue. Once we’ve gotten there it will take diligence to maintain it. More than ever before we are prepared to meet that challenge.