Boston Broadside
March/April 2003
Vol. 60,  No. 4
 Newsletter of the Boston Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication


Copyright © STC Boston 2003

Program Report

Making Documentation Accessible

By Anne Kinsella

Despite temperatures hovering around zero degrees, STC Boston Chapter members and their guests filled the ballroom at the Sheraton Inn in Lexington on Wednesday, January 22. Mike Paciello, President of The Paciello Group, presented ways to make documentation more accessible for the disabled. He defined accessibility as, "whether something is usable by a person with a disability."

Mike Paciello  
Mike Paciello  

His lecture raised awareness for some, and it combined instruction with warnings of upcoming changes. "The Web and the Internet have made it possible for individuals with disabilities to get around. In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities," said Paciello.

To demonstrate the difficulties of those facing disabilities, Paciello requested a volunteer from the audience and asked him to remove his coat. When Paciello asked the volunteer to put the coat back on, Paciello observed that the volunteer put his right arm into his right sleeve first. The volunteer was asked to remove his jacket again and put it on left sleeve first. "He looked at it like it should help him out. It's about attitude," said Paciello.

The volunteer was able to put his coat on with more difficulty than before. "You can still accomplish the task. You will make the sacrifice. We don't think about users with disabilities. We don't think they use hi-tech but they have been using it since the 60's. How do you think Stephen Hawkings has been getting around?" asked Paciello.

  Mike Paciello
  Mike Paciello

Some of the problems with documentation accessibility were outlined:

  • Small print, poor format
  • Poor choice of colors
  • Graphics without text descriptions or captions

There are approximately 50 million disabled citizens in the United States, making this group the largest single minority population in this country. There are not enough people out there to raise awareness about documentation accessibility. The crux of the problem is to force companies to code to standards.

Federal laws have been rewritten to allow individuals to work and still to have their benefits. Otherwise it would be advantageous to stay on welfare, according to Paciello. "There are now disabled workers in every company you can think of," said Paciello.

Mike Paciello  
Mike Paciello  

Section 508, a mandate that supports accessibility for people with disabilities, was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. "Focus today has expanded beyond the Web where accessibility is concerned. The Internet and multimedia have changed the notion of having a disability," said Paciello.

The law applies to all federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. "The biggest IRS problem is that disabled people can sue them, because their forms are not accessible," said Paciello.

The primary reason that Web sites are not accessible is lack of usability testing involving people with disabilities. The three key areas are usefulness, effectiveness, and learn ability, according to Paciello.

Some available resources that provide more information about usability include:

  Mike Paciello
  Mike Paciello

Questions from the audience were encouraged. "You can look to see how to code it but you don't have information on how to design it," asked P. J. Gardner of Arlington. "We are trying. We have trainers going into companies," answered Paciello.

The event was sponsored by Northeastern University. Assistant Dean and Director, Rose Doherty, and Consultant and Advisor, Neil Duane, were available before and after the presentation, to explain Northeastern's Technical Writing Program. Doherty started the new interactive design graduate certificate program that focuses on accessibility. "A certificate can be obtained by taking classes online or through classroom study. Career counseling is also available," added Doherty.

View the Making Documentation Accessible photo gallery.

Anne Kinsella, a graduate of Northeastern University, is a freelance writer working out of her home in Littleton, MA. She can be reached at .

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