WeCo rethinks accessibility by design

by Tristan Pollock


WeCoDuring your daily Internet activities you will pass over thousands of hidden coded lines — HTML, JavaScript, CSS, you name it. If you are a developer, you know what it looks like and how to use it, but you might have overlooked an important detail: not all visitors are created equal.

Many of us are purely visual, but there is a subset of Internet users that do not use website pages conventionally. That’s why St. Paul’s Wehrman Collaborative, or WeCo, was formed.

WeCo works with government, private and public companies, and nonprofits to improve online design from the code up, making sites much more accessible to many different kinds of complimentary technologies, including screen readers for the visually impaired, speech recognition and eye tracker systems for people with limited hand use, and many other devices.

Lynn Wehrman“Our primary purpose is to provide user experience testing surrounding how people with disabilities use websites,” explains WeCo president and founder, Lynn Wehrman.

WeCo is an evermore common combination of a social venture and for-profit business called a social enterprise, or mission-based for-profit. Created in the wake of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to assist disabled Internet users by helping redesign the very websites that are trouble-filled, WeCo employs a team of test consultants composed completely of their target audience: disabled individuals. Currently, they employ a nine-person test team, but have plans to hire 21 more testers in 2012.

“We believe that people who live with disabilities have viable skills that should be rewarded [in the marketplace],” says Wehrman.

Wehrman Collaborative

Besides creating open and fair access for all, there are also legal issues that business and government entities should be careful not to overstep when it comes to communicating with their customers. In accordance with the ADA and Rehabilitation Act of 1973, organizations that received federal funds need to make communications available to all people, regardless of disability level. (There’s a lot more on basic access, but I’ll leave that to the attorneys.)

Wehrman Collaborative 2Overall, WeCo sticks with inclusion ideals focusing on testing websites with different technologies, educating on digital accessibility, managing partnerships with design firms who understand accessibility and the laws around it, and, more recently, working with Microsoft Office 2010 functionality with screen readers and speech recognition. And there’s only more to come.

On Dec. 7, WeCo was a featured presenter at the 2011 Minnesota Government IT Symposium, and just two days later they gave their first “Access Approved” seal to Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority based on the WeCo Standards of Access.