What is IT Accessibility?

In honor of National Disability Employment Month, this week’s Q&A is with Sarah Bourne, Director of IT Accessibility. Learn more about what Tech Services & Security is doing to promote accessibility throughout our IT projects and workstreams.

1. What do we mean when we talk about accessibility at EOTSS?

This means making sure that as many people as possible can use state online services and resources, and especially people with disabilities. From a technical perspective, it means following standards that ensure interoperability with “assistive technologies” including speech-to-text, text-to-speech, and magnification software and a wide range of input and output devices. There are usability requirements that call for human judgment as well. For example, you must have alternative text for an image, but to be accessible that text needs to be an accurate replacement for or description of the picture.

The World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative has a great series of videos that illustrate how assistive technologies work and how IT accessibility benefits everybody:

Web Accessibility Perspectives: Explore the Impact and Benefits for Everyone

2. What is your role and responsibility at EOTSS in promoting, encouraging, and ensuring compliance for accessibility?

The Commonwealth buys more technology than we build, so our focus has been on ensuring we are buying accessible products, or that we can make it compliant by the time we need to use it. I contribute to the IT Acquisition Access Compliance Program by assisting with use of the required contract language, reviewing accessibility claims in bids, drafting mitigation plans as needed, and participating in a number of Accessibility Advisory Committees for large projects.

I also manage the statewide contract for IT Accessibility services, ITS61. This contract gives us access to qualified accessibility professionals on as-needed basis for testing websites and applications for accessibility, fixing accessibility problems with websites, applications, and documents, training in accessibility requirements and techniques, meeting accessibility requirements for audio and video, and providing accommodations for employees using legacy systems.

I am always available to answer people’s questions at sarah.bourne@MassMail.State.MA.US.

3. Is accessibility required by law in Massachusetts?

Yes, there are various state and federal laws that pertain to IT accessibility. You can see the list on CommonWiki: Massachusetts and US accessibility laws. One of the things that sets Massachusetts apart from other states is that our citizens with disabilities have never been reticent to stand up for their rights under these laws. Lawsuits are often accompanied by press coverage and damage to our reputation, which often viewed as a bigger risk.

4. Beyond the legal requirements, why is it so important to ensure the services and information we provide such as Mass.gov is accessible to all?

Some disabilities may be life-long, such as being blind or deaf, and some can be temporary, such as a broken arm or a head injury. The things we need to do for people with long- or short-term disabilities also help people with “situational” issues: using video captions on the bus, having only one arm because you have an infant in the other, trying to read in direct sunshine, etc. Insuring accessibility improves usability for everybody. Or to turn it around, the things that make it convenient for all make it possible for people with disabilities.

5. How long have we been doing this?

Massachusetts has been a leader in IT accessibility for a very long time. Notably, Massachusetts demanded it in Microsoft’s new graphical user interface, “Windows”, and their applications that ran on it. As a result, Windows 95 launched with the first accessibility API (application programming interface) that could be used by assistive technologies (AT). We worked closely with state employees who used AT when launching the state’s first websites, and produced accessibility guidelines before there were any national or international standards. We published our first web accessibility standards in 2000, and overall IT standards in 2008.

6. Are there any upcoming hurdles to ensuring accessibility during this Tech Transformation?

Communication is essential in our accessibility efforts: you can’t expect people to comply with requirements if they don’t know about them! With the change in administration and early retirement, many former channels of communication are gone. Tech Transformation gives us an opportunity to rebuild those channels and improve on them. For instance, people doing procurement don’t have to know how to code an accessible web application, and developers don’t have to be experts in ADA legal requirements. As roles and responsibilities are refined, we have an opportunity to get the right kind of accessibility information to people who need it to do their job.

7. What current or upcoming projects are you working on?

Our strategy has been to be in alignment, or “harmonized”, with federal standards to make it easier for software vendors to meet compliance requirements. After an eight year process, the federal government recently updated their IT accessibility regulations. Now it’s our turn, so we can improve accessibility while encouraging technical innovation.