Accessibility: The Bigger Picture


I have been working on website accessibility for many years in my role as Production Manager at the UCSF Center for HIV Information. Despite that experience, I still encounter problems that confound me. I recently reached out to an accessibility expert for ideas on how to manage a particularly difficult compliance problem. One of our partners documenting new Hepatitis C medication found that she needed to make changes to published PDFs fairly frequently. She asked us to publish an 85-page PDF that was mostly irregular tables (tables with rows and columns that span other rows and columns). Each table cell needed to be associated manually with a header cell so that visually impaired readers could access the data in a meaningful way. Making those associations is slow, manual work; it can't be automated.

While we were in the middle of making it compliant, the author introduced important changes into the PDF that we weren’t able to insert without having to re-do the work we’d already done (over 60 pages of tables, over 10 hours of work at that point). Additionally, she told us she expected to completely revise the document in a couple of months. How, I wondered in my email to the compliance expert, could we possibly manage this?

Adding a complex set of accessibility-related tasks to an already full to-do list can seem pretty overwhelming. There are a lot of checklists online that will walk you through what to do for a specific kind of content, but the context for doing the work, the bigger picture, can be harder to navigate. Here are some suggestions for what you can be mindful of as you do work to make content compliant. In future blog posts, we'll go into more detail about PDF, HTML, video, and PowerPoint compliance.

Build time into your planning

Accessibility can't be tacked on to the end of a process without causing a lot of extra work and in many cases creating new problems. For example, if the effort of adding table summaries to a long document is left to a technical person as a last step, that person will likely be unfamiliar with the document and will create summaries that don't accurately describe the table. They will also be slower at the work as they try to decipher complex information in tables containing unfamiliar content.

Build accessibility into your timelines, and decide who should be taking which steps.

Create organizational support

The effort to make content accessible is more likely to be successful if people at all levels of the organization understand its importance. It's helpful to decide and communicate which people own which parts of the process within an organization. Start documenting problems if you need to get leadership's attention or get resources for the effort. An organization must dedicate resources to accessibility, or the best intentions are meaningless.

Some examples of things that could happen on the organization level to create a foundation for managing individual documents include upgrading out-of-date software where necessary to get access to new tools for creating accessible documents; committing to writing summaries and descriptions during the content authoring process; testing color contrast early in design; creating focus groups that include users with disabilities; and creating timelines that have accessibility built in.

Remind yourself that it's the law

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that you create accessible web content, and your organization can be sued if you don't. A quick Google search will give you a sense of the scope of the issue, but the World Wide Web Consortium has some helpful resources on Policies Relating to Web Accessibility to get you started.

Consider the ways being more accessible is good for your organization

It's great to reflect on this when you're deep in the process of making a document compliant, because in all honesty it can be difficult, tedious, and time consuming work. You want to be able to draw on the reasons you're going through the effort. Remember that you want everyone to be able to access your community and content. You want all visitors to come away with the sense that you are an inclusive group and have made every effort to make it possible for them to engage with you because it's the right thing to do, but also because it helps grow your community. Unintentional barriers to people with disabilities leave users with a bad taste in their mouths, a taste that they will associate with your organization.

Recall the people on the other side of the screen

Perhaps you know someone with a disability that affects their ability to use web sites. Talk to them about what it's like to navigate the web.

If you don’t know anyone with a disability, you can also imagine the experiences of people who use assistive technology to access your web site. Designer Adam Morse has written a beautiful blog post about how to do that called The Veil of Ignorance. I highly recommend it.

You will probably never know how many people are accessing your site using assistive technology, which users they are, or exactly what challenges they face. This is why standards are so useful. If you meet the standards, your content will be accessible to as many people as possible. Statistics on how many people with disabilities are using the web are hard to come by, but most of us will encounter access challenges as a result of normal aging. A detailed discussion of data is outside the scope of this post, but I refer those of you who are interested to the Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, a project of the University of New Hampshire. They estimate that 56,672,000 people in the United States are living with a disability.


I opened this piece by describing an exchange I had with an accessibility expert regarding how to manage the difficult process of maintaining complex, rapidly-changing, accessible PDFs. We could not find ways to improve our process for managing that, though she reached out to her colleagues for ideas. For the moment we just continue to do our best to stay on top of the issue and try to be realistic about our timelines.

The most important result of the exchange, though, was the one I could never have anticipated. I learned that the expert I was working with was visually impaired. She couldn't advise me on how to use Acrobat, she said, because she is blind and Acrobat's compliance tools are not accessible. I had engaged with her many times by telephone and email, and had never known about her use of assistive technology because she had software that allowed us to communicate.

There are people with a lot to offer your community who want to contribute and engage. Make it possible. Make it easy. Your communities are worth the effort.

To visualize the importance of website accessibility, please refer to the Website Accessibility Infographic which was created to support this piece.

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