Doing accessibility: making digital accessible

Part two of a two-part series on accessibility for National Inclusion Week. In the context of the upcoming National Strategy for Disabled People, Jake Wall looks at making digital accessible.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust our lives ever more online, the increasingly prevalent use of digital services across society has brought issues of accessibility into the spotlight. With services in critical areas such as employment and health guiding more and more people online, it has never been more important to ensure that no-one is left behind.

The Government will publish a National Strategy for Disabled People later this year promising an ambitious strategy to “level up opportunity so everyone can fully participate in the life of this country”. Without a doubt, there is a strong role for both Government and industry to play when it comes to meeting this aim for online and digital services, ensuring that we not only increase access to technology and connected services, but that we also work to increase the accessibility of those services.

This insight is one of a two-part series on accessibility. Read part one on improving access to digital here.

A key aspect of the accessibility puzzle centres upon making digital and online services themselves accessible. After all, it is one thing to have the prerequisite devices and connectivity to access these services, and quite another to be able to navigate and utilise them effectively.

Guidance such as WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) has been created to address this challenge and explain ‘how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities’. However much of the content we find online remains inaccessible despite these longstanding guidelines, indicating that more may need to be done to improve compliance. And while some web content may be technically compliant with WCAG, that does not necessarily mean it is accessible for people with disabilities. Public sector organisations need only adhere to the AA component of WCAG rather than the higher AAA standards, meaning aspects such as sign language and translation are excluded; along with those who depend on such accessibility functions.

Whilst standards are clearly an important tool in making digital more accessible, it is thus pivotal that there is an ongoing role for users in the service design and standards process. We must ensure that users with disabilities do not face a ‘double exclusion’ – from both discussions about service design and then subsequently from those services themselves. Accessibility Panels comprising an authentic diversity of users and designers, for example, may offer one way of meeting this challenge. It is often the case that efforts to increase accessibility fall short because the process does not allow for input or feedback from people who know the issues and who have experienced them. By bringing together panels that sufficiently represent the views of those with most at stake in conversations of accessibility, we can ensure that end users are getting the support that is actually needed.

An equally significant consideration is the ‘other side of the skills coin’ – that is ensuring that accessibility is a core element of skills and training courses, web development training and university degrees. For computer science courses and other accredited certifications, accessibility often constitutes one module or area of study. But accessibility is not an add-on or an extra,  and accrediting institutions should seek to ensure accessibility is a silver thread that runs through everything that is taught on their courses.

Similarly, organisations should also work to make accessibility a core component of everything they do. Accessibility is not something that is merely for developers and designers to think about, it is something that should permeate an organisation. Organisations must consider whether their products and services are accessible, and equip content creators – whether they are creating a Word document, a PDF or a presentation that is uploaded online – with the knowledge and skills they need to make sure their content is accessible too. One such way to do this may be to distil existing, more complex guidelines such as WCAG into more refined, typical guidance documentation for organisations that can be included in internal training and factored into day to day work.

Taking forward some of these issues, techUK’s Accessible Tech Group have proposed an ‘Assistive Technologies Essentials’ (ATE) framework seeking to define a minimum standard for assistive tech in the public and private sector. An independently verified self-assessment certified badge, the ATE aims to encourage organisations to make light touch changes to their product or service, covering the key aspects of accessibility, how it fits into the law, how it is measured, and what it looks like to be ‘compliant’. Such a framework would afford organisations an educational opportunity to learn more about accessibility and how it pertains to their offerings, and a way of demonstrating that they have given thought to accessible components and how to be inclusive.

Ultimately, if we are to meet the full extent of the accessibility challenge, what is required is a holistic approach – bringing together the joint efforts of Government and industry – that draws across standards, user input, targeted support and education in all its forms to empower those with accessibility needs, organisation leaders, web designers and content creators alike with the knowledge and tools required to improve access to digital and make digital more accessible.