Visual and interactive online tools like MetroQuest are a growing part of the community engagement toolkit.
These same elements present a challenging test when it comes to the web accessibility criteria. While it’s easy to ensure that fonts are large enough for those with less than perfect vision and colors are not used in a way that put people with color blindness at a disadvantage, providing a workaround for people using screen readers to place comments on a map is a bigger challenge. It’s true that even visually rich and interactive online engagement tools can technically meet the requirements by, for example, including text descriptions of images and other screen reader accessible options. It’s also naïve to think that these options are equivalent to the experience provided to those without special needs. Furthermore, depending on the needs of both the project and community members, they may not even be the best alternatives for those with visual disabilities.
From May to July 2015 we conducted a review of case studies of planning projects using online engagement as a significant source of community input. The review compared the results of the online engagement processes to look for patterns and identify best practices. So what did we learn about these kinds of interactive elements? Should interactive elements be avoided? Based on the case studies we examined, certainly not. In fact, many of the most successful projects attribute much of their success to these visual and interactive features. The leading planning and engagement experts recognize that not every tool in their toolkit will necessarily meet the most stringent online accessibility standards. That said, they know, and have demonstrated, that to optimize overall engagement results, they need a strategy that provides options for all people to participate. And that may include a mix of technologies and approaches, even if some of the visually rich online tools don’t meet certain web standards for accessibility. Here an analogy may help. The entrance to our office building has both a ramp and stairs. To accommodate the needs of people on wheels, the architects didn’t remove the stairs. They added a ramp. No one approach is going to be best for everyone. It’s about a variety of options to meet a diversity of needs.
Ashley Ver Burg from HDR in Minnesota deals with accessibility issues head on as she seeks to create the most effective digital engagement strategies for her clients. In a telephone interview we conducted in February 2016 she put it this way:
“When we pull together a digital engagement strategy, we start with accessibility. We strive for design that doesn’t impede accessibility and accessibility that doesn’t impede design. Visual elements are essential to making information easier to understand. This is the foundation of accessibility. The reality is that we often need to use multiple tools to reach different audiences.”
Naturally, people with visual difficulties have every right to participate, and practical options for them must be part of every engagement plan. Indeed, planning agencies can benefit greatly from the insights provided by people with special needs. In reviewing leading case studies, the best practices that emerge look beyond the minimum requirement spelled out in legislation, toward a goal of providing a range of options that allow people to select the one that best meets their needs. For some people, providing a parallel screen reader accessible site is an attractive option for online access. For those with visual difficulties who choose not to use screen readers or those who would appreciate a more personal experience, providing an opportunity for people to speak to someone by phone or attend a session in their community may be better options. A wide range of choices will serve your community better and will open up the opportunity to participate to a broader audience.