Are you reading this post with your eyes? To most of you, that probably sounds like a really strange question. For over six million people in the United States alone, however, the answer is not "Yes." That's how many adults have a visual disability, and for them the web is a completely different world than it is for those of us with full sight. That world is no less important, though, and in the OAE Project we want to make the Open Academic Environment a welcome environment for everyone, including those with visual and other disabilities.

The OAE's user interface has always included many features for the disabled, most of which are (deliberately) invisible to users that don't need them. We've designed and developed those features by careful attention to standards and best practices. All members of the core development team are fully abled, however, so we don't have all of the insights necessary to ensure that the OAE provides the best possible accessibility. Beginning with the Ibis release that's changing.

In the fall of 2014 we started working with WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), a leading specialist in accessibility within the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. The experts at WebAIM spent many weeks using and evaluating the OAE and prepared an initial report with many recommended improvements. The recommendations from that report are captured as specific issues for the OAE project's front end software, and we're dedicating resources to addressing them. Nearly a dozen improvements have already been incorporated into the Ibis release. We're continuing development on the remaining issues, and future OAE releases will include more accessibility features.

Working with the experts from WebAIM has been an amazing opportunity for the OAE development team. Standards and best practice checklists are helpful for ensuring accessibility, but they can't come close to replacing the guidance of real, expert users. Perhaps the most important lesson we've learned is that achieving outstanding accessibility requires thinking carefully about the OAE user interface as a whole and not just as a collection of individual widgets. 

As a specific example, consider the thumbnail images associated with many aspects of the OAE. You can see them with user comments.

Because users relying on screen readers cannot "see" thumbnail images, previous OAE versions added a special, hidden label to those images. The label contained the name of the user making the comment. Although this added label was invisible to sighted users, screen readers would detect it and read it aloud as a substitute for the image. This behavior conforms to relevant standards and checklists, and, before our work with WebAIM, we thought that it helped make the OAE more accessible. 

What we learned from working with WebAIM, though, is how much context matters. It turns out, as in the screen capture above, that almost every time the OAE displays a thumbnail image it also displays text with the user's name right next to the image. That text is in the form of a link, and screen readers also read links aloud. When a screen reader encountered an OAE comment, therefore, it would first read aloud the user's name from the hidden label, and then it would immediately read aloud the user's name again, this time from the text link. This needless repetition was quite annoying, especially for pages with many comments. The hidden label that we added in an attempt to improve accessibility turns out, in many cases, to have actually made the experience worse.

As we continue our work with WebAIM, there will certainly be other cases that overturn our preconceptions. And when we encounter those cases, we'll gladly adjust our assumptions so that the OAE becomes the most accessible platform possible.

And finally, if you are reading this post with your ears instead of your eyes, please let us know how we're doing. We truly do want to make the Open Academic Environment as enjoyable for you as it is for everyone else.