The world of digital writing has not only exploded in content over the last 20 years, it has also exploded in availability as well. As more people have gained internet access, more thoughts, views and points of data have entered into public availability than ever before. As of 2020, approximately 60% of the world’s population had some level of internet access available to them, compared to the 7% who had access in 2000. (Data courtesy of the World Bank, licensed under Creative Commons 4.0)
This growth in internet access has been far beyond what could be described as explosive. This, of course means more people with differing needs have been able to gain access to digital writing. These needs range from quick answers for a pressing problem, to being able to actually understand the writing that may be visible to most, but is not visible to a person with a vision disability. While it is very much possible for an entirely blind individual to access and understand the plethora of digital writing available in today’s day and age, not every piece of digital writing fulfills such needs.
While accessible web design is something thought of by web designers at high levels more often than it once was, your average writer may not even take into consideration that screen reading software exists. In such an interconnected space, the importance of rhetorical velocity applies not just to how one’s writing may be interpreted in the future, but also to who and how the writing will be received by others. This is limited not just to what type of display, such as a desktop vs. mobile display, but applies as well to software and hardware peripherals such as screenreaders and braille displays.
These convert regular text to readable Braille.
The Old Web
After the creation of what eventually became known as the Internet by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, the first website did not instantaneously pop up. In 1991, the first website went live. You can still visit this page today as CERN has opted to keep it online.
Design standards were yet to come, and as such there was no normal or uniform idea for what a webpage should be. Some took this as an opportunity to be as loud as possible, while others took a more subtle approach.
One of the most condensed versions of these varied levels of absurdity is the one place where the only limit is your imagination: zombo.com.
zombo.com exists solely as a piece of parody of the design standards (or lack thereof) in Flash load screens circa 1999. It is loud in its color scheme and is quite pointless despite how much it promises over audio. No additional content actually loads.
At this point in time loud, possibly eye-straining colors and instantly playing audio were the norm. While software to create access for those needing it existed (JAWS, a popular text-to-speech program, has been available to the public in some form since 1995.) at this point in time there were not standards in place as to how writers or web designers should intentionally create pages to fit the needs of those with disabilities. The many promises and claims of zombo.com are completely inaccessible to one without their hearing, as no transcript or form of captions exist. To these users, the page may appear to be nothing but an infinite load sequence. While this is funny on its own, the actual source of comedy on this page is lost without the audio.
The W3 Consortium (W3C), an organization led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, focuses on creating and maintaining Web standards for use globally. The organization was formed in 1998 and today has standards for accessible web design. However, it should be noted they did not publish these standards until 2015. While these standards extend outside of writing on the web and extend into development and design, the writing is the core focus here.
These standards cover items such as alternative text for images, how to properly handle links, and how a proper setup of heading and subheading structure creates a document that is organized and easy to follow regardless of visual cues. While these standards come from the highest authority on web standards in the world, it does not mean they are widely known or even held to in every single instance.
This lack of adherence creates a clear issue in which not every person who has access to the internet has the ability to receive the information it is sending to them. Within the United States, it has been legally determined that websites have to be accessible. A case heard by the Supreme Court in 2019 determined that websites must be accessible, as they are a place of “public accommodation.” Domino’s Pizza was the owner of the website that was deemed inaccessible. They completely lost this case as both their website and mobile app were impossible to use with screenreading technology.
This case occurred four years after the W3 standards were published, so what went wrong? Within this particular case, it was likely willful ignorance on the part of a large corporation trying to save some cash. However, for your average digital writer, overlooking accessible design likely comes from simply not knowing such standards exist.
The topic of digital accessibility is treated as a footnote most of the time. Within my university level courses, it was uncommon for it to be mentioned in any way beyond a passing note of its importance. A Computer Science instructor I had merely noted how important it was to adhere to guidelines to not get sued, but never did delve into how to adhere to those guidelines. A web design course I had mentioned accessibility being important, but rushed through it within five minutes and never mentioned it again. This poses a serious problem, as new developers, writers and designers may be entering the field blissfully unaware of a glaring issue that could come back to bite them and their employers legally, not to mention also lead to whatever information they are trying to communicate being impossible to even understand.
Creating Connections with Accessibility
Within the education environment, how can accessibility be treated as more than a footnote, while also not taking up too much time in an already busy program? Mark Brand, while discussing his discoveries regarding how students accessed and interacted with course content during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, came to realize that these methods differed greatly between students. They differed by device, access to said device and usage of such devices to such a degree that he concluded that for instruction to be at its best, instructors should:
“…walk their technological path rather than demanding they walk ours, beBrand, Digital Biomes: Lessons From COVID-19 Remote Coursework Ecosystems
models, demonstrators, and collaborators rather than conjurers of obstacles, and show them
what, how, and as much as possible why to do the work of our courses.”
and Interfaces, 2020
Brand was referring to things such as specific word processors, devices and applications. Accessibility was not the focus of his paper, but his conclusion connects with how to best instruct individuals (and groups) about the importance of digital accessibility in one’s writing, development, etc.
Often, one of the best ways to learn about something is to have a hand in building for it, or directly seeing how an item can impact or work. Various studies have been done, and each have concluded that actively engaging with content makes it more likely to be retained. Students may not feel this way as noted by a study from 2019, but this likely comes from the additional cognitive load such learning puts on students. It does not detract from the higher learning ability active learning presents. As for how one could learn actively about accessible digital writing, it may be as simple as having students view a page from the perspective of a blind or deaf individual before comparing a well-designed one to a poorly designed one.
Read and Write has a free trial, and may be available to some institutions already freely. (UCF I know offers it for free to any of its students, regardless of disability or lack thereof.)
JAWS, which was mentioned earlier, is unfortunately locked behind licenses and will not function unless a license fee is paid. Other free alternatives include Apple’s built-in VoiceOver and NVDA.
These programs are commonly used by individuals with disabilities, and provide the same experience regardless of platform. By having students directly see what their content may be viewed as, or, as Brand put it earlier, by “walk(ing) their technological path” the reason for such accessibility standards being treated so seriously should become clear. Of course, as a student myself I know not exactly how difficult such a thing would be to implement on the instructor’s side of things. This could also come down to something as simple as using an accessibility validator such as WAVE and requiring a submitted page pass. It is however worth noting that not every page behaves with this checker correctly. While testing for this publication, I found that the Associated Press’s webpage failed to even render properly in their checker.
A Quick Recap
Digital media has come a long way since its initial online ventures in 1991. While an estimated 60% of the world’s population now has some access to the internet, it is more important than ever before to make sure that content can be understood by all who may see it. Standards have been set, and have made the wild, crazy and mostly annoying styles of the past a thing of the past. While teaching these standards can be done in various different ways, leaving them as a footnote to be passed over in under five minutes not only does a disservice to what these standards are working to accomplish, but may lead to situations where one ends up in hot water out of pure ignorance. Digital writing, and in general, web-related courses, programs and tutorials should place a larger focus on teaching and clarifying accessibility standards than they do now in most cases. The few exceptions are greatly appreciated, but should be raised to being a standard over an exception.