Accessibility and the Untold Issue Around Cloud Computing

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ben Kepes


While helping create the Cloud Computing Code of Practice alongside the New Zealand Computer Society, I was approached by Kevin Prince who is the Manager of Innovation and Development working within the Access, Innovation & Enterprise unit of the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind.

The RNZFB, as the name implies, is an organization that advocate for the rights of the visually impaired, and as would be expected, technology falls into its area of concern.

Prince wanted to give me some insight into a submission he’d made to the Code of Practice. Now I have to admit that when talking around the areas of concern for the CoP, not much (if any) thought was given to the issues that impaired people face when using cloud.

In fact the decision was made during the consultation process that universal design and accessibility issues should in fact be outside the scope of the document. That was a necessary, if unfortunate decision as the drive was to come up with a readily consumable document that vendors could relatively easily comply with.

That said, Prince is justified in his assertion that accessibility is in fact an issue that falls under compliance rather than design. I met with Prince who ran through the issues that visually impaired users had with technology in general, and cloud solutions in particular.

He pointed out that there is no technical reason for modern products to fail in universal design and asserted that exclusion from the code would give the issue the appearance of a ‘nice to have’ rather than an integral part of professional software engineering.

Prince shared with me the RNZFB submission to the code and I’ve copied excerpts of it below. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts around accessibility issues specifically related to cloud solutions:

"…the main area of concern will be the clients of SaaS although it should be borne in mind that blind and partially sighted IT Professionals work on backroom functions so PAAS and IAAS providers should not ignore accessibility."

"Blind and partially sighted users employ a combination of technologies ranging from native display and browser adjustments through dedicated magnifiers to screenreaders or a combination of these…Even with this there remain huge issues with poorly coded JavaScript elements and dynamic labeling. To compound this cloud software typically runs within a browser and there is therefore a layer of abstraction from the actual code due to the presence of the browser as an intermediary. Adaptions made through scripting to suit one domain can often cause issues with other domains as the adaptive technology sees both as being .exe. Scripts are also not as easily portable between machines as cloud applications and may need to be individualised to the user. Applications that use remote server technology (e.g. Citrix) typically require a matching version of the screenreader to run on the server and take authorisation from the client screenreader and client server support is not available in the magnification applications currently deployed."

"While scripting can address some issues after the fact it is not ideal in that the user of the software is not in control of the upgrade path and what works today could be useless tomorrow by something as simple as a change of graphic or the order of objects on a page. This is not the case with non-cloud software as the owner can test and then schedule upgrades to address the issue."

"It is perhaps easiest to demonstrate that accessibility has relevance beyond design by looking at some recent case studies. These will be found in the appendix below."

Cross-posted from Diversity

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