John Rochford Talks About Accessibility

Some people think having accessible websites is like having a swimming pool. Nice to have, but too expensive and too much upkeep. Unlike a swimming pool, however, an accessible website means that anyone can view it whatever their limitation, ranging from a physical limitation like limited or no eyesight, to having a handheld device with small display.

John Rochford, Director of Technology at New England INDEX a project of UMass Medical School, is one of those people who takes accessibility seriously and makes websites better for everyone. Talance has been working with Rochford and his team on the online training component for an initiative called Patient-Centered Medical Home (PCMH). It’s a major undertaking that aims to streamline and coordinate how healthcare providers work with each other and patients.

Monique Cuvelier, Talance’s CEO, asked Rochford about his work in accessibility, his biggest headaches and his proudest moment.

Monique Cuvelier: I think a lot of people who care about accessibility have a compelling reason to do so. What’s the driving force behind your involvement in accessibility?

John Rochford: The driving force for me is the result of the combination and the evolution of two of my passions. One is for computer technology. The other is for helping people with intellectual disabilities. My professional career started in the mid-1980s with a succession of jobs serving people with intellectual disabilities. During that time, people shunned computer geeks like me. Yet the people I served embraced me. That they are such an open, friendly, and accepting people has always been heartwarming to me.

In the early 1990s, I sought a graduate degree at The Shriver Center for research, training and service related to intellectual disabilities. It has a project, New England INDEX, which provides free information about programs and services for people with disabilities residing in Massachusetts. All of the software INDEX designed at the time for that purpose was as accessible to people with disabilities as we could make it.

I started to extend our software to the web in the mid-1990s. Since then, I have designing websites as accessible as technology and funding have allowed, and as best as my developing expertise could make them.

MC: What does a typical accessibility test or process look like for you?

JR: We start by building accessible web applications. This makes it much less costly to fix accessibility issues, and much easier to test for related deficiencies. We use automated testing software to check for problems across a website. We have also used assistive technology products in our testing. A good example is that we make sure all our web sites are compatible with screen reader software for people who are blind. Most importantly, we have people with disabilities test our web sites.

MC: What kind of digital media are ignored the most with accessibility?

JR: All digital media (e.g., videos, music, etc.) are natively inaccessible. Only a tiny percentage of websites are helpful to people with disabilities by incorporating accessible media players and/or by providing alternative, accessible content. An accessible media player, for example, provides controls (e.g., play, pause) that work with screen readers so people who are blind can use them. Such controls are also good for people with physical disabilities who may not be able to use a mouse.

The National Center for Accessible Media is a good resource about accessible digital media. For many years, we have used on our websites its ccPlayer, an accessible media player, and its captioning services for our video content.

MC: What’s the single biggest rule people should follow to make pages accessible?

JR: Make sure people with disabilities test a website and every version of it.

MC: What’s your biggest accessibility headache?

JR: My most significant challenge is convincing people to make their websites accessible. I find it appalling that I have to work to convince the staff of organizations, which serve people with disabilities, to make their sites accessible. What people do not realize is that an accessible website is easier to use for everyone, which is always good for business.

MC: What was your proudest moment in accessibility?

JR: It occurred early in my career after I installed speech recognition software for a young woman. I was showing her how to use it instead of a keyboard and a mouse, which she could not use. She cried as she told me it was the first time she would be able to write a letter to her mother. I consider that achievement of hers to be the special one.

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