Making the King County website accessible for all

This article is featured courtesy of the King County Department of Information Technology

Understanding user realities is important for KCIT staff working to improve the County’s digital presence.

Understanding user realities is important for KCIT staff working to improve the County’s digital presence.

To make the King County website more accessible and useful for residents with visual and hearing challenges, King County Information Technology (KCIT) staff met with deaf and blind residents and advocates on April 26 to learn how to make existing and planned websites and mobile apps more user-friendly.

KCIT Director and Chief Information Officer Bill Kehoe took part in the conversation, along with the KCIT Business Solutions teams, and King County’s ADA Compliance Officer Melony Joyce.  Their discussion was open, candid, and very specific.

“Useful means two basic things,” said Debra Cook from the UW’s Older Blind Independent Living Program. “Is it accessible and is it usable?” She explained that for this diverse community, whose members have varying levels of sight and hearing, accessibility depends on several factors. Do they have the right software? Is it accessible on multiple browsers? What level of technology is needed to use the website? Is it compatible with the tools they currently have, such as screen readers that read on-screen text out loud to the user? The architecture of some websites can hinder the effectiveness of accessibility software.

With the support of Metropolitan King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, KCIT staff sat down with Paula Hoffman, Vice President for Government Relations with The Lighthouse for the Blind; Angela Theriault, Executive Director for Deaf-Blind Services; Will Roach, President of the Puget Sound Association of the Deaf; Debra Cook from the University of Washington’s Older Blind Independent Living Program; Jonas Allen, a Website Design Consultant with the Puget Sound Association for the Deaf; and several others community leaders. Their goal: a framework and recommendations for building a more useful web presence.

Yet while many people with disabilities have trouble using the digital tools that are increasingly important to everyday life, technology also has the most potential to make everyday life easier for these users. Well-built websites make it easy for them to understand, navigate and, ultimately, receive or request services on their own, just like other County residents. And many improvements to make websites easier for users with specific needs, also make the sites easier for all users.

The participants stressed that at the very least, should adhere to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (W3C) published by the main international standards organization for the internet. W3C provides specific guidelines and recommendations on making online content accessible for people with a wider range of disabilities. The guidelines revolve around the four principles of usability – that websites be operable, perceivable, understandable and robust.

“People with disabilities tend not to have the latest software even if it is free,” said Debra. “They aren’t able to update their braille technology or screen technology.”

“We can’t accommodate technology that is over 15 years old, but we can align to the guidelines about things being operable, such as keyboard accessibility, meaning being able to navigate the site using keyboard commands rather than a mouse.”

“It has to be perceivable, meaning usable by people with different types of perceptive preferences and needs,” she continued. “And it needs to be robust enough to accommodate a range of browsers, media players, plugins, and other assistive technology.”

“English for deaf and blind individuals is a second language. They are being forced to use English and braille as adults, and the newly-blind cannot read fast. For them, five words per minute might be their top speed,” she said.

Understanding these user realities is important for KCIT staff working to improve the County’s digital presence. They will continue to work with members of this group on building a King County website that is both accessible and useful, while providing specific information to web content producers and those who design the navigation.

“Getting this level of insight is a huge step forward,” said Bill. “We have a lot of work to do and this will help us create a much better, more user-centered web experience.”

Until these changes are finalized, here are a few suggested accessibility guidelines for those who create content for the King County website:

  1. Keep pages clean: Every piece of text users with disabilities interact with is hard work. Cluttered webpages with a lot of copy makes it too difficult and they may give up.
  2. Keep language simple: For this group, English is functionally a second language. American Sign Language (ASL) and Braille are the primary languages. Simple language also makes it easier to translate for other limited English speaking users.
  3. Label everything: Alternate text is mandatory. Hovering with the mouse is useless. Clear, descriptive headings allow them to use assistive technology to move through a page of copy more quickly.
  4. PDFs: Scanned PDFs are not accessible. Save PDFs as “accessible” so that it can be “read” by screen reading software. It’s the default setting on your computer.

The meeting was extremely informative and KCIT looks forward to a deeper relationship with members of this core group, and to sharing what is learned with all County employees who are creating and maintaining County websites.