The Open Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) kicked off across the globe last week, with Australia joining Ireland, U.S.A, Germany, India and Canada in the competition to build an accessible website. Started by US non-profit organisation Knowbility, the competition has for the first time allowed teams outside of the United States to participate.
Sharron Rush, Executive Director and co-founder of Knowbility, the non-profit behind Open AIR, says the central goal of the competition is to raise awareness about web accessibility amongst those who can do something about it.
"The central goal has always been to raise awareness and skills among those who can do the most to advance the cause of technology access — the developers themselves."
Now running for 14 years, the competition challenges participating teams to build an accessible website in one month. Teams choose a non-profit website and work together to improve its accessibility so that people who have a disability can better access the site.
However, Rush says the issue of web accessibility isn't specific to the websites of non-profit organisations. "Non-profit organisations are no different than any type of organisation. Accessibility issues apply equally to all."
She adds that web developers aren't deliberately leaving people with a disability out. "There is simply a huge lack of understanding and awareness among content providers and developers."
Team leader for Australia, accessibility specialist Christos Petrou, says he is looking forward to participating in the competition.
"It would be interesting to see how people in other countries see accessibility ... and how they implement [it]."
Comprised of other developers and professionals with an interest in web accessibility, the Australian team led by Petrou has chosen to work on the Australian Network of Disability (AND) website.
In a recent revamp of the site, accessibility improvements were made. However, these updates haven't prevented the Australian team from finding areas to improve on the site. One of the main improvements Petrou wants to bring to the AND website is to add WAI-ARIA Landmarks Roles to it.
WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Applications) is a technical specification published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), to provide a way for web content, in particular dynamic content, to be made more accessible. ARIA Landmark Roles allows you to define different parts of a website.
Petrou explains WAI-ARIA is like "the sugar icing on top of the cake — additional decoration".
"It is an additional attribute in HTML markup that provides information for the status of an object, so it gives extra information that a screen reader doesn't have."
This includes information that helps screen reader users to identify areas on a page such as banners, navigation, search, or article areas as they navigate through the webpage.
In 2010, the Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy (NTS) made compliance with international web standards as per the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), a legal responsibility for Australian Federal, State, and Territory government websites. WCAG 2.0 ensures web content and websites are accessible to as many people as possible, including those with a disability.
Competition judges will look at how well each team has implemented techniques outlined by WCAG 2.0, as well as how ARIA has been applied to the websites. Some of the criteria listed in the judging form include the use of headings for navigations, use of landmark roles, use of hyperlink text and correct markup, to name a few.
Another area that Petrou and the Australian team are keen to tackle is keyboard accessibility. According to Petrou, keyboard navigation is often overlooked as a consideration in the development of a website.
"Often people don't concentrate on keyboard navigation to get all the functionality. It's getting better but there are still websites where keyboard functionality is poor."
For screen reader users who rely on keyboard shortcuts, such as people who are blind or vision impaired, allowing your website to be navigable via keyboard means people with limited vision don't have to strain to follow a mouse on the screen — they can use keyboard shortcuts to get to various parts of a webpage. Using correct markup and appropriate metadata through ARIA Landmark Roles can help achieve this.
Rush agrees and cites the lack of keyboard access as one of the top five accessibility barriers. Other accessibility barriers mentioned by Rush include lack of text alternatives, lack of semantic markup to define content structure and function, unlabelled form input fields, and incorrect use of colour contrast.
Open AIR runs until 17 November when websites are due for submission. Winners will be announced in March at the 2013 Dewey Ceremony and Open AIR Awards at the SXSW Interactive Festival.