Screens Rule Everything Around Me

Accessibility must be part of the conversation in civic tech and government digital services.


Prolonged exposure to LED screens and fluorescent lights gives me excruciating migraines. The migraines started with a concussion in June of 2016, and have impacted the way I live my life, how I interact with technology and the built environment, every day.

As someone whose professional life revolves around using technology to serve the public, this change in my personal health has underscored the importance of making that technology accessible to everyone.

I sustained my concussion while rock climbing. For weeks after the incident I was perpetually tired, nauseous, and increasingly sensitive to blue spectrum light—all symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. Most people heal from a concussion within a week or two, but as my physical therapist said, “if you’ve seen one concussion, you’ve seen one concussion.” Every body responds to a head injury differently.

Post-concussion, I became acutely aware that digital screens are all around us. We use LED screens to communicate, read the news, schedule doctor’s appointments, watch TV, plan events, choose where to eat—the list goes on and on. Fluorescent lights also fall on a blue spectrum, and are also everywhere. Trains? Check. City Hall, where I worked? Check. Most public buildings and offices, from hospitals to banks, illuminate their halls with fluorescent bulbs.

Photos of the author from June, September, and November 2016, and May 2017. The first image shows the day of the injury, and the last three show the different glasses she wore to prevent migraines.

It took me about 36 hours to go to the doctor after the June night I came home from the climbing gym to ice my head and neck. By September, I was wearing sunglasses and a snapback hat regularly to class, before finally discovering Axon Optics’ rose-colored migraine glasses. A year later, I’ve graduated to more subtle Felix Gray computer glasses. Images and timeline by Angel Quicksey.

Increasingly, essential government services are also accessed through digital screens. This transition makes them dramatically easier to access for much of the population, but also has implications for people like me, and people who suffer from more permanent disabilities. I’m still learning, but I know that accessibility has to be part of the conversation in civic tech and government digital services. If we’re not building services for everyone, we are failing to fulfill our duties as designers, developers, and civil servants.


WHAT IS ACCESSIBILITY AND HOW DO WE DESIGN FOR IT

When designing more accessible digital services and media, David Kelleher, an Emerson College professor of visual and media arts, says we have to consider four types of disability: visual, auditory, physical, and cognitive.

Each disability type requires specific accommodations. Low vision may require document structuring or alternative text for images. A hearing impairment necessitates closed captions on video, while learning (cognitive) disabilities call for maintaining, say, a 6th grade reading level on a website or app.

Technically, accessible online government content is enshrined in law. Digital accessibility standards for governments come from Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (amended in 1998) and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) crafted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Section 508 requires all federal agencies to create accessible websites, while Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that state and local government programs be accessible and useable to people with disabilities.

In practice, merely following the guidelines doesn’t always solve the problem. Kimberly Muñoz, a front end developer who worked on the redesign of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) website, said sometimes “people hew so closely to the 508 guidelines that it doesn’t make the website very useable.” Muñoz cited one common example in which developers make a separate, compliant, and screen-readable website to meet their legal obligations, but then fail to update that site along with the main version. In these cases, people with visual impairments have to use a “version of the website, which is outdated, never updated, and sometimes broken,” Muñoz said.

Muñoz and Kelleher both emphasized that problems often arise when accessibility is thought of as an “add-on,” something that is only addressed at the end of the project. It is in those cases that separate websites start to seem like a fine option, because the main website has already been built.

Adhering to the law is not enough. Accessibility ought to be part of the conversation when we begin crafting online content and building digital services. Otherwise, we risk relegating people with disabilities to the same poor technology experiences the civic tech movement set out to address in the first place.   


BUILD WITH, NOT FOR

Laurenellen McCann, who introduced the phrase “build with, not for” to the civic tech world, argues that accessibility and access is core to the “build with” philosophy. They would know.

Like me, McCann suffered from a concussion and subsequent severe post-concussion syndrome. In 2015, they hit their head on a table and have been extremely sensitive to barometric changes and fluorescent lights ever since. They have issues with sound and white noise. As I did for the first six months of my concussion, McCann carries a snapback hat with them, in case they “need that extra layer [of protection].” Unlike me, McCann has episodes that they posit are likely seizures when exposed to blue spectrum light. Still, their brain scans, even during an episode, continue to come back normal. In their words, “it’s been an absolute f—-in trip.”

A headshot of Laurenellen McCann.

Laurenellen McCann was scheduled to speak at the 2015 Personal Democracy Forum before a concussion changed their plans. Photo via Laurenellen.com.

For McCann, the way we build accessible services is by “building with” people with disabilities. This doesn’t necessarily mean putting a visually impaired or hearing impaired person on every usability testing panel, McCann said. However, if civil servants and civic technologists are “thinking about the fullness of building with and not for, we have to think about what people need.” Thinking about what people need requires technologists and civil servants to engage directly with the communities they serve.

McCann admitted that this approach is not easy. “It’s messy,” they suggested, “and you fail sometimes. And you have to own that failure and correct it, [but then] you’re probably closer to doing it right than if you create a single best practice guide that you push and only later end up learning you excluded someone.”

McCann argued that a well-designed, community-driven development process is required for civic technologists to build digital services that serve people, including people with disabilities. Pointing out that some of the impairments that we now categorize as disabilities were once interpreted differently, as in mental illnesses that were seen as mere hysteria, McCann suggested that relying on a best-practice guide could obscure needs that we simply don’t know about today.

By contrast, Kelleher argued that checklists can be a part of any well-planned process. “Problems can happen when the checklist *becomes* the design process,” he wrote in an email. “Best practice guides don’t exclude community involvement, and the guides themselves evolve just as well as individuals fixing their own mistakes.” More centralized mandates allow leaders to push out large-scale changes quickly and effectively.

Moreover, Kelleher pointed out, “the scientific literature is quite clear that most real world solutions combine both top-down and community-driven approaches, mandated solutions and free-form workflows, and note there are benefits and drawbacks of each.”

With the benefits of a checklist in mind, I’ve compiled the pet peeves, common errors, and tips and tricks from my interviewees into a small guide to what governments and their partners should look out for when it comes to accessibility. Kelleher’s website, Desera, has more comprehensive guidance for those who want to go deeper.


COMMON ERRORS

The experts I spoke to cited several common accessibility errors they often see in digital formats.

Text errors.

Often the text used online is too small to read. This affects not only people with low vision, but middle-aged and elderly readers who might suffer from presbyopia, the scientific name for the farsightedness that occurs as we age. Sometimes the color or font make written content difficult to read as well. This common design error can happen both online and in print. As Kelleher pointed out, “that’s a really easy thing to solve. You know, choosing a font, color, and a font size that make sure that if you have content that needs to be consumed by an aging audience, they won’t have difficulty reading it.”

Information design and organization.

Poorly organized content is a particular pet peeve for Kelleher, who said that “people will go out and they’ll get professional help for the design, they’ll go out and get professional help for the development they need done. But people don’t realize that organizing information and content is just as difficult a task and would really benefit from the help of professionals. You see this everywhere.” When information is poorly organized, it can be hard for everyone, not just people with disabilities to find what they’re looking for.

‘Read More’ Links.

Another issue that impacts content writers is the prevalence of “read more” links. As Muñoz explained, “there’s a WCAG guideline for having describable links because screen reader users can navigate by links, but if all of your links say “read more,” that doesn’t give you any context at all.” (According to WebAim, screen readers convert digital text into synthesized speech. Most screen readers say “link” before each link. For example, the WebAim link above would be read as “link WebAim” by JAWS, a popular screen reading tool. “Link read more” doesn’t give any information about where a link directs the reader.)

Forms.

Muñoz also took issue with form design and form input. “A lot of people want to have timeouts [where a page or session has a time limit], especially banking websites for security,” she said. While keeping a form or a website secure is important, Muñoz maintained that you have to inform screen readers that they “only have so much time before they lose their place, or their job application times out.”


WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW

Civil servants and civic technologists can start by following a few best practices that serve the disability types discussed above. These suggestions don’t address every accessibility requirement, but they are a good starting place.

Clear Guidance.

All contributors to digital content should be aware of the requirements, from the developers to the content specialists. “If accessibility isn’t an afterthought, then your designer should know what the guidelines are so you don’t run into contrast issues at the end, your UX researcher should know what the guidelines are so they can design simpler interfaces, and your content people should also know what the guidelines are so they provide alt-text and describable links and are able to include that in how they write for the web,” Muñoz said. Accessibility should be part of the discussion at the beginning of every project, and staff and contractors alike should have access to clear guidance on accessibility requirements.

Easy to Follow.

Because program officers or communications staff sometimes create pages or content without going through their respective Departments of Technology, the guidance discussed above should be easy to follow. Those staffers outside the digital unit may not be familiar with web accessibility. For that reason, Muñoz explained, “what your technology department should be doing is setting people up for success. Make it easy for people to create pages within a CMS that has as much of that accessibility work baked in and do education.” In short, while the technology department or digital team should take the lead, they should educate other departments and make technology choices that enable them to succeed.

Readability.

Content creators can use Microsoft Word’s document properties to check the readability of their text. A variety of websites, like Readable.io, also deliver readability scores.

A screenshot of Readable.io with sample text from the City of Boston's old website. The image shows that the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for this paragraph is 15.6.

Professor Kelleher recommended testing a paragraph about trash from the City of Boston’s hazardous waste page in his 2016 appearance at Boston Civic Media Conference. Here, I’ve used Readable.io to show the text comes in at a 15.6 grade level. Boston redesigned their website a few months after Kelleher’s talk to be much more usable, but before that refresh, you practically needed a college degree to understand the city’s explanation of trash disposal.

Structuring a Document.

In Word and Adobe Acrobat, as well as online, it’s important use “styles” to identify headings, paragraphs, and emphasized content. Using the “b” and the “i” buttons doesn’t provide information for screen readers about the text that is tagged. Styles have the added benefit of making it easy to build “Tables of Contents” and change formatting throughout a document or page.

Alt-Text.

In the same way one would add alt-text to images in a web page or article, alt-text can be added to images in Word. Alt-text presents the content and function of images within web content, according to WebAim, a web accessibility nonprofit based at Utah State University.

Color Blindness & Contrast.

When it comes to color, there are a variety of websites that allow designers to assess how a color palette will look to someone with colorblindness, or if a design is at risk of contrast issues. Coblis, Color Oracle, and Vischeck, for example, rise to the top of the Google search results for “colorblind check design.”

Two Google Analytics graphs displayed side by side. The graph on the right shows what it would like for a colorblind person. The colors on the right are difficult to differentiate.

Google Analytics’ graphs don’t hold up to a simulated colorblindness test, as we see in this image from wearecolorblind.com.

Video Captions.

For anyone who produces videos, YouTube has an automatic closed captioning feature. Kelleher explained that producers have to go into the video manager to select a video and add closed captioning, adding “it’s a quick and automatic thing that video producers can do to make their video accessible to people with hearing disabilities.”

Scanning Sites for Compliance.

Muñoz recommended developers use an automated program to scan their work. “The WCAG guidelines can be kind of overwhelming [without one],” she said. This is not a replacement for being familiar with WCAG guidelines, according to Munoz, but the automated tools do catch a lot of common mistakes. Perhaps for that reason, W3C, who created the WCAG guidelines, lists 93 web accessibility evaluation tools on their website.


DESIGNING FOR THE MARGINS, DESIGNING FOR EVERYONE

As the civic tech community builds new digital tools for governments, nonprofits, and their partners, we have to ensure those tools—the websites, and forms, and applications—are accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. Particularly when it comes to government, there is no alternative to using local, state, or federal services. As many of us well know, there is no alternate DMV.

What’s more, people with specific disabilities are not the only ones who benefit from these accommodations. To paraphrase Ceasar McDowell, professor of practice and co-chair of the Master of City Planning program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when we design for the margins, we design for everyone. This approach works in the same way that curb cuts which were designed for veterans in wheelchairs, also benefit anyone who rides a bike or pushes a stroller, McDowell said.1 Similarly, as Kelleher emphasized to me, writing simpler, better organized content, helps those who read at an 6th grade level in addition to everyone with more education or higher cognitive skills.

“In systems, the people living at the margins are living with design failures,” McDowell said in a speech at the 2016 Boston Civic Media conference. “They are creating adaptive solutions to survive. When we design with and for people, we build stronger and more equitable systems for everyone.” Much like McCann’s exhortation that we “build with” communities, McDowell’s argument encourages community involvement by actively engaging “those who are living with the failures of the system, so their wisdom and their adaptive innovation can be at the front and center of the design process.”

Thankfully, many government agencies are doing an excellent job of designing accessible services. The CFPB website refresh that Muñoz worked on took WCAG’s Level AA compliance into consideration, in addition to aiming for 508 compliance. (WCAG has three levels of compliance, from Level A to AAA.)

Back in 2014, the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation (MOCI) and the SF Airport partnered with Indoo.rs, a European startup, to design with the Lighthouse for the Blind as they created an app to help visually impaired passengers navigate through the airport. When blind users tested the app and found that it narrated everything they passed rather than giving specific directions, the app creators used that feedback to create an experience that guided travelers to their destination with fewer distractions.

As governments increasingly use digital tools to communicate and deliver services, this kind of work becomes even more important. If we don’t find ways to incorporate accessibility into our services, we risk further marginalizing these groups, merely reproducing inequality in our technologies.

We can build better solutions if we take the time, if we are vigilant, if we build with the people we serve.


  1. Before McDowell developed his theory of designing for the margins, curb cuts were popularized as an example of “universal design” by architect Ronald L. Mace. McDowell contrasts his approach with that of universal design. In his 2016 Boston Civic Media Conference address, McDowell said “equating ‘design for the margins’ with ‘universal design’ is about the same as someone hearing black lives matter and replying all lives matter. While it is true that all lives matter, the underlying structures that continually reproduce inequality are brought to light when those most marginalized by society are put at the center.” I highly recommend watching that speech in full.