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Navigating Web Accessibility During Natural Disasters

Sep 21, 2017

Following the recent spate of catastrophic storms that have bombarded the United States, stories have emerged in which social media and other online platforms have proven essential for both the dissemination of information and for the rescue of stranded individuals. When such disasters occur, it is imperative that everyone has equal access to the same online tools designed to inform the public and offer routes to safety. Unfortunately, many apps and websites don't maintain such equality across users, leaving those with a disability in a potentially perilous state. This article examines this issue and looks to some recent efforts to build apps and other online platforms designed to help those with disabilities during disasters.

While efforts have been made to boost web accessibility in the past, there is still a substantial amount of legislation and regulation needed to guarantee that websites comply with accessibility needs. In 2005, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) drafted the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), establishing a protocol for achieving an ideal level of accessibility across a website's design. Recent lawsuits have encouraged a closer look at the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in hopes that its rules could more clearly apply to organizations' online presence. This ADA compliance is still under question, though, and further complicating the issue is that the current administration has relegated its scrutiny to the periphery.

The recent weather-related disasters, however, encourages a renewed analysis of web accessibility standards since it has been shown that accessing the web can mean the difference between life and death. The United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stresses the importance of a clear plan for securing the safety of those with a disability during a disaster event. They also have a well-designed app that comes stocked with helpful tips on how to prepare and survive, and weather tracking features that encourage accessibility for the disabled. Beyond their own site, FEMA has yet to openly promote any other universally accessible web-based option for preparation, information, and rescue notifications, and many noteworthy disaster aid organizations still have modifications to make. The American Red Cross, for example, offers a platform that limits usability by those with impaired vision because it used unlabeled buttons and difficult-to-distinguish elements.

Other organizations, however, have made promising strides in the development of web-based platforms and apps that support and safeguard the disabled population. Global humanitarian groups have contributed substantially to these apps' development. The non-governmental organization CBM, for instance, has developed the Humanitarian Hands on Tool (HHoT) smartphone app, which can be used to help volunteers and other humanitarian workers to develop inclusive spaces for those rescued or for those who are refugees from disaster zones.  A similar app called Mobile TIPS for First Responders was developed by researchers at the Center on Disability and Development at Texas A&M University. Similar to HHoT, this TIPS platform helps various aid groups maintain a semblance of ADA compliance when helping to secure or support a disaster-stricken community.

In addition to these tools that encourage accessibility and inclusiveness, other apps can aid someone with a disability who might need help in the aftermath of a disaster. For people with impaired hearing left stranded after a disaster event, there is RogerVoice. This app lets users make phone calls by providing audio captions. A similar service is offered for the visually impaired by TapTapSee, which identifies objects out loud using photographs taken from an electronic device's camera. If a visually-impaired person becomes disoriented or lost during a natural disaster, this app could aid in communicating a location to rescuers.

In times of disaster, everyone should have equal access to resources that keep them both informed and safe. With universal web accessibility and ADA compliance a priority, this equality can be established, and the safety of entire populations can be promoted when the next disaster strikes.

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