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New tool fixes app accessibility glitches

The new Applause Accessibility Tool helps developers write better apps for disabled users by automatically finding and fixing app accessibility issues in their code as they write it.

The issue of providing digital accessibility to disabled users can be a thorny one for developers, particularly those building apps for federal systems, but testing vendor Applause has released a potential answer to the problem.

The Applause Accessibility Tool helps developers overcome app accessibility concerns by automatically finding and fixing accessibility issues earlier in the software development lifecycle.

The tool is available as a free download and currently only works with the popular JetBrains IntelliJ IDEA Java IDE. However, it will likely support other development tools such as the Visual Studio Code lightweight code editor and possibly others based on user demand, said Jonathan Zaleski, Applause's senior director of engineering and head of Applause Labs.

Applause has set its sights on a potentially super-lucrative market, as there are more than one billion potential customers in the world with some sort of disability that could benefit from better app accessibility, said Gina Bhawalkar, an analyst at Forrester Research, citing World Health Organization figures.

Moreover, "For many organizations a lawsuit or fear of a lawsuit begins the conversation -- there were over 2,000 web accessibility lawsuits in 2019 -- but we see more companies recognizing having an accessible website and apps gives them access to new markets, gets employees inspired and more engaged, and creates better experiences for everyone," Bhawalkar said.

Disabled users who run into accessibility obstacles with apps and websites can file lawsuits citing the Americans with Disability Act of 1990 (ADA). And federal systems must adhere to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which says  agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information comparable to the access they provides to everyone else.

Meanwhile, organizations should aim to support the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines -- the latest of which is WCAG 2.1, Bhawalkar said. WCAG is a set of web accessibility guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium.

There are three things organizations need to do to take advantage of the digital accessibility opportunity, according to Bhawalkar: embed accessibility into design and development, view their systems through the eyes of disabled people and expand who they include in product design to encompass a more diverse set of backgrounds and abilities.

Companies getting accessibility right are 'shifting left' -- moving some testing responsibility to developers and designers.
Gina BhawalkarAnalyst, Forrester

"Companies getting accessibility right are 'shifting left' -- moving some testing responsibility to developers and designers," she said.

The Applause tool is meant to establish a baseline of accessibility for developers' applications, Zaleski said. Most of the app accessibility problems the tool catches are related to an app's visual aspects, he said.

"We touch on probably somewhere in the area of 20 percent of the known accessibility issues that are out there and fix them," Zaleski said. "The best possible number, at least that I've seen in exploration, is somewhere in the 30-ish percent range."

The Applause Accessibility Tool complements the company's app accessibility testing service and is being deployed largely as a lead generation tool for the company. Although the tool will automatically catch accessibility holes, fixing them often requires hands-on attention from accessibility experts, Zaleski said.

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