Accessibility: Beyond the Surface

October 28, 2021

LMI Staff

Close your eyes.

Even with your eyes closed, you could probably tell if someone were to turn off the light. If you’re familiar with the room you’re in, you can picture it—the color of the carpet, the pattern or paint on your wall. But imagine if you had never seen color, or if colors blended into each other. How would your perception of the room change?

Many people don’t have to imagine. Those with visual impairment, color blindness, and other reading difficulties, such as dyslexia, can find many documents hard, if not impossible, to interpret, despite decades-old laws to increase accessibility.

In 2020, we marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and in 2021, National Disability Employment Awareness Month coincided with the 20th anniversary of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Action. But what does any of that even mean? Handicapped parking spots depict a person in a wheelchair, but often our coworkers’ struggles aren’t so obvious. Some simple changes can increase accessibility for all without having to know someone’s personal journey.

Our Commitment to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Accessibility

At LMI we are devoted to establishing programs, tools, and techniques to enable and ensure equal access and success for all.

Open your eyes.

I know, you already had them opened to read this far. You are lucky to get that choice. Differing levels of ability are all around us, but we rarely take the time to notice.

When my sister started missing developmental milestones 40 years ago, she was misdiagnosed. For what they thought she had, she was doing really well. However, as far as autism goes, her case is severe. Autism runs in families and there was such a stigma against it at that time that my parents almost didn’t have me. As it was, I had multiple painful ear infections as a child, so they wondered if they would have one child who didn’t talk and another who didn’t hear. Although getting tubes in my ears alleviated my chronic difficulty, there was nothing like that for my sister.

My grade school had the students swap classrooms for a few subjects to get used to how it would be in high school. I didn’t really know the kid whose desk I sat at during the trade, other than that he hung out with a boy who once pinned me down in the playground until I ripped his shirt pocket. So, when I got a call from the school about my desk mate, my immediate thought was that it has something to do with the desk. The truth was far worse. He had had an asthma attack that night and died in his mother’s arms, unable to catch his breath. His family read the card I made at his funeral. You never know what someone else is struggling with or how a small action on your part might bring them comfort.

It’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Just as you can’t necessarily tell a person’s ability by looking at them, a document’s accessibility isn’t always readily apparent. In fact, a totally inaccessible document can look the same as one that is compliant with all the standards. While LMI emphasizes designing documents with accessibility in mind, when we receive completed documents whose contents can’t change, we can still remediate these documents to the chosen compliance standard without changing the outward appearance. How? Tagging.

In a PDF, tags set the underlying structure that assistive technology uses to navigate through the document. Scanned documents or other images contain no tag information. If you’ve ever used an optical character recognition program, you’ve seen how some of the underlying text information can be recovered, but it’s never perfect, often misinterpreting the numbers 0, 1, and 5 as the letters o, l, and s or vice versa and requiring careful confirmation that the text is correct. Luckily, through use of styles and because of advances in accessibility, most documents have some information about their underlying text and structure, and tools can assist with tagging. However, automatic tagging solutions can’t perform the manual checks necessary to ensure a fully compliant document. Unfortunately, just because a document can pass a free accessibility checker doesn’t mean it is compliant with the standards required by law.

Helping the Right Way

When my sister was still young, one method thought to help autistic children express what they couldn’t say was a communications board, a visual representation of language. We tried a variety of models, ranging from laminated printouts with “yes” and “no” as well as some basic pictures in squares to an electronic model with the whole alphabet. My sister required someone to assist her. Although the results were sometimes encouraging, more often, they were hit or miss. This method of facilitated communication was debunked as little better than a Ouija board, with the facilitator unconsciously guiding the participant’s responses.

Often, even when people mean well and have a strong desire to help, that’s not enough. A cheap, automated solution may seem like the best option when you’re trying to add accessibility to a document on a tight timeline. However, neglecting manual checks can leave your document without the necessarily elements to make it useful to those who truly need it. At LMI, we remediate to the client’s desired standard or, if no standard is specified, use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, an international standard whose success criteria ensure a document is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

My sister will never use the documents that I remediate but I hope the time and attention that I take in my work helps break down barriers for others.