image group of people holding tablets with thumbs up on screen

UN-tangling accessibility

On the occasion of 70th Anniversary of the United Nations, there has been an initiative to raise awareness about the importance of web accessibility. As a measure of immediate change, the organisation has started to improve all the UN websites.

Logo: accessibility guidelines for UN websites

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s thought-provoking article stresses the importance of eliminating digital barriers. This also includes a brief but highly effective video highlighting the importance of accessibility and this notable line:

Accessible websites benefit all visitors, not just those with disabilities. On an accessible website, the user is put at the centre of the experience.

This is a lesser known fact about accessibility. Apart from the obvious advantages of creating an inclusive environment and increased market reach, accessibility enhances the overall user experience by improved clarity and structure. One of the hidden benefits is improved search engine rating (in fact Google essentially is like a blind person looking for information). But above all, it is all about acknowledging the diversity in the end user community, accepting the fact that we are all differently-abled due to many factors.

I’m passionate about User Experience (UX) – improving the digital experience for the user, particularly for the disabled users. So to learn about the scale at which this is being taken up by UN is very energizing. It is high time that this topic garners the attention it deserves. It is legally, ethically and commercially important make technology a level ground for those with disabilities. A live example of its benefits is the legendary scientist Stephen Hawking who uses various assistive technologies to express himself. What a loss it would be for the world to not provide that opportunity to participate!

Today’s IT service providers have to sit up and think what they are losing by not getting their act together in terms of accessibility. In fact, it can be considered a discrimination for a service provider to host an inaccessible website and hence be subjected to legal action. However, rather than fearing accessibility for such reasons, there is a strong case for businesses to consider improving web accessibility because of the positives it brings with it. There have been glorious examples of businesses reaping benefits by making their websites accessible. There have also been some infamous stories about those who have paid a price for disregarding this aspect.

To be fair, there have been some examples where organisations have put accessibility on the top of their list, particularly where a new system is being built. For example, during the development of GOV.UK portal (Government Digital Service), I am told that the delivery would not get progressed to the live environment unless there was a complete approval on the accessibility aspect of it. However such examples are far and few between. Sadly, most seem to have chosen to push it down their ‘to do’ list. In some cases it is seen as too significant an area of impact on development processes and hence not to be taken too lightly. i.e., hold a lot of discussions rather than take any action. Why do they do that I wonder?

Existing websites, old technologies, ongoing business, impact on BAU?

Accessibility is not easy to understand. You need to involve people with disabilities to fully realise the problems. How easy is it to engage people from that community in the software development process?

ROI: is there really an audience or are we just going through a lot of hassle for a small minority?

We need specialist companies to do justice to this topic; can we afford to get them on board?

Well, let us face it, all these factors are actually very real. I very much empathise with the businesses in the challenges involved around accessibility. It is a long way to achieve the utopian idea of fully accessible websites across board. But to me, the first step is not the implementation – it is to develop the will to support accessibility, to include it in the thought process, to talk about it in meetings, to encourage innovation around it, to consider investing in it. In my opinion, there usually is not enough research done before concluding that it is not for now, it is a topic to be taken up some day in the future.

This actually calls for a change of perception and practices, a real determination to make disabled users feel more welcome. There are some immediate measures a business could take up to reflect an inclusive line of thought. For example, carrying out an audit on the existing websites to understand the current issues is a good starting point. Implementing easy fixes sometimes does not call for a huge investment. Publishing an accessibility statement on the website is another recommendable measure, to acknowledge that there are known issues and to offer the users a way to report the issues they are facing. There could be other innovative, technical solutions to accessibility issues. There is a lot businesses could do, if there is a will of course.

We might want to take a cue from the construction industry. In today’s age, there perhaps would be no new building without a lift or a ramp. Even in existing buildings, there have been excellent examples of creating an accessible route with minimal impact to the structure. It is perhaps very natural for architects and engineers to factor it in by default. It is perhaps a matter of time before accessibility in IT attains a level of importance it gets in building constructions. But we IT professionals can make it happen sooner – for the sake of 15% of world’s population, for the sake of equality and human rights, or perhaps for the sake of our own old age!

And how do we do that? By learning more about it, by raising awareness, by talking to our customers about it, by trying our best to include it in our proposals / web designs / user interfacing programs / testing activities. It is our choice to be just an audience to this initiative started by the UN or to be an active part of it.

Please spread the word!

What are your thoughts on web accessibility? Leave a message below or contact me by email.

Published by

Sowmya Ramesh

Sowmya Ramesh has been with Sopra Steria for the last 7 years, currently leading an initiative for developing the topic of Accessibility Testing within the company. With over 14 years of experience in the IT consultancy / service industry, Sowmya has worked with various clients in public and private sectors. A stint at ‘Enable Scotland’, a charity supporting people with learning disabilities, gave her an opportunity to understand the needs of the disabled community and she has developed a deep interest in accessibility. She has been striving to raise awareness about this topic and hopes for it to gain more importance in the IT sphere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s