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.
Innovation is a word that cannot be missed in any part of our lives today. Technological advancement has touched the lives of people in the most remote parts of the world – we are all better connected, better aware and better resourced. Who could have imagined touch-based devices could become every day commodities in practically every corner of the globe! Innovation has the power of true societal transformation. Accessibility is one topic which has been affected directly by such trends in technology. For example, hand-held devices have heralded as a game changer for disabilities including visual impairment. The rise of AI (Artificial Intelligence) gives more hope to disabled users to be empowered by technology.
There has been a glowing example to demonstrate this idea called ‘Humanitarian Hands-on Tool’. This fully accessible app aims to address the idea that in case of an emergency, a disabled person is likely to be the worst affected. The app aids workers by providing step-by-step guidance on how to implement an inclusive emergency response. This includes easy access to key information including emergency shelter, health services, distribution of essential items etc. Through easy to use task cards, the aid workers are provided with clear, practical and detailed instructions, which help them assist people with disabilities better. Such exemplary tools are to be celebrated for their thoughtfulness and trendsetting nature – and also for putting accessibility in the heart of innovation.
Followers of the popular Television program ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ will distinctly remember the recent awe-inspiring performances of Jonnie Peacock, a celebrated Paralympian. His participation in the famed dance competition was hailed as a sign of disabled people well and truly entering the ‘mainstream’. It is time we bring that spirit to innovation as well. Accessibility cannot be a marginal idea. It has to be the driver of a thought, a development or even a movement! Come, be a part of it – let us innovate for everyone!
To read another of my pieces on accessibility, click here.
I recently came across this fascinating report on the help extended by a computer scientist for a little girl with severe memory loss. It is an extraordinary example of the efforts of an individual in addressing an accessibility problem very effectively. Close on the heels of this story, there was the big announcement of a new Microsoft app being released for public use called “Seeing AI”. This app is perhaps one of the most intuitive tools out there for people with visual impairment and has been built with a lot of thought. I remember following this project a couple of years ago and wondering if only such large scale developments can bring about a change, or is it a good idea to keep working on humble ideas, while not holding our breath for one big change to improve our lives. In reality, we need both just now – big technical corporations investing heavily in researching on ground breaking solutions, as well as small measures from individuals giving their best shot in ensuring someone feels comfortable in their everyday life.
Earlier this month, the United Nations Association-UK published a factsheet to mark the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, which indicates a grim situation for people with disabilities. Disabled people are four times more likely to be out of work than non-disabled people and the poverty rate is twice as high in comparison too. According to another factsheet published by the Papworth trust, disabled people experience much lower economic living standards than their peers, which is again attributed to increasing rate of unemployment. This deeply concerning trend needs to be immediately addressed on many levels. One of them is to improve the confidence of people with disability in approaching employment opportunities and to provide them with an environment in which they can operate comfortably. Here in Sopra Steria, our Company CEO Vincent Paris has reflected similar thoughts about being an employer with empathy. We have to think of being more proactive in engaging people with disabilities in our work places and also to engage better with those amongst us with disabilities, so they have the motivation to continue in employment. In the context of service industry that we are a part of, we often think about disabled people mainly as our customers/end-users but we have to think of colleagues with such conditions too, facing barriers constantly.
The topic of accessibility is a complex one which is dependent on perceptions of individuals as well as the bigger society, about the idea of disability. It will take a lot of determination to support this topic and we have a long way to go. But this journey can be easier if each one of us stand firmly to make sure accessibility is given its due consideration. Let us make way for accessibility in our lives, as individuals and as professionals, in the world around us.
“Diversity is the world’s biggest asset and inclusivity is our biggest challenge.”
These are the words of the renowned design researcher Jutta Treviranus, and this powerful thought was shared at the recent Accessibility Scotland 2017 conference in Edinburgh. The event was a brilliant congregation of accessibility experts, enthusiasts and advocates. The topics ranged from the fantastic new innovations from the likes of Microsoft, to accessible ideas in gaming technology. Many insightful thoughts were exchanged in great spirit, making it a highly engaging event.
One of the interesting exercises tried out at the event was to have open discussions about accessibility matters of common interest. I was involved in the one about the implications of Brexit on laws and regulation around accessibility. Amongst the various arguments we made in this connection, there was one question that we all debated intently –
Should we have a culture driven by legislation or should it be the other way round – and have legislation empowered by common culture?
If the latter, we perhaps have to invest in a strategy on how to go about it. We should be encouraging learning on these concepts early on. Hence there is a need to perhaps develop awareness about inclusivity at schools and universities. We should also be ensuring that web accessibility is included in study materials for new recruits in companies. We definitely have a long way to go in making accessibility a default feature of all our work.
It is a well-known fact now that not many countries have been very successful in making accessibility an obvious aspect in their technology domain. This less trodden path could very well be taken by the UK, to set an example to other societies. There are innumerable charities working across the country for this cause, which reflects the amazing work done here for the disabled community. We have a great opportunity in the world of technology too to become leaders on this front. This call goes out to everyone, irrespective of working in public or private sectors, to think about the impact we can potentially make by being inclusive – in our web designs, in our programming, in our testing and above all in our attitudes.
It is ironic that people with disability were one of the early adopters of technology (like speech processors etc.) but have been left behind as the new innovations are arriving in unbelievable speed. As the famous writer William Gibson has said,
“The future has arrived but it is not evenly distributed.”
Our world today boasts of advancement in technology which is beyond imagination but it is very much our battle of the moment to make sure it is in reach for everybody.
Today, we celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness day, and I can’t help but mention about witnessing perhaps the most divisive times in our recent memory. While harmonious communities are at the brink of deep divisions and our collective thought process is ever preoccupied with the volatile political and social situations, it is perhaps a good occasion to remind ourselves of those who are most vulnerable. There is a need to come together to support them more than ever before. The technical community has always taken pride in transcending boundaries most effectively.
There is a greater responsibility on us now to operate in a manner which looks out for end users who are the risk of getting completely ignored.
Internet inventor Vint Cerf has recently called for it to be considered an offence if a web based service is not accessible. While the sentiment seems fully justified given the service providers can get away without doing much about web accessibility, his views seem to predominantly hold programmers / developers responsible for such aspects. In reality all roles in a software development life cycle need to contribute towards making a service accessible. Right from senior management down to the operational teams, there is an onus on every role to make the end-to-end accessibility a reality, which the accessibility experts have been highlighting all along. There is something we can all do no matter what our position is in the big IT juggernaut.
Recently, MP Dawn Butler created history by using sign language for her speech in Parliament – an utterly inspirational gesture about caring for every person in our audience and for making sure everybody understands what she was trying to convey. To think, ensuring everyone understands our work is actually a basic obligation to ourselves as it will give it most reach and recognition. Looking at the same idea with a business hat on, there is a very obvious commercial benefit to it. The more people understand / access the content the better it is for marketing and hence better for business. It is sheer common sense to make our work accessible.
In future, the new innovations may very well address these requirements completely. For example, the improved voice browsing technologies are a great alternative for people with visual or motor disabilities. But at the moment there is still a big need to build websites with consideration to the diversity in user communities. At Sopra Steria we have a full set of services to make this happen – see our dedicated website for accessibility services and service infographic.
Now is a time for all of us to renew our pledge to achieve complete accessibility in the world around us.
Have you had an online experience which has been of great quality but found the accompanying business service less than satisfactory? I recently went through a similar experience with a popular cultural festival. There was an inconsistency in the ticketing process where an online ticket purchase required a visit to the ticket collection point to get a print of the ticket. Some of these points were difficult to reach and were poorly sign posted. It got me thinking how one inadequately supported aspect of an otherwise fantastic event was sticking out like a sore thumb for me! Allowing the customers to print the tickets at home would perhaps resolve the issue? Or offering a mobile e-ticket which would also be environmentally friendly?
A similar thought was mentioned by a speaker at the Accessibility Scotland 2016 conference that I attended recently. Accessibility expert Mark Palmer highlighted:
Accessibility needs end-to-end support in a business and web accessibility is just one aspect of it
Quoting the example of booking a flight ticket for a customer travelling with a guide dog (which is yet to be made a fully online process by some airlines and can be quite laborious), he explained that unless the business processes around this idea are well designed, it does not serve much purpose to just get the IT part of it right. Say if a software implementation has delivered a perfectly accessible web based system to place order for a product but the ordering process needs the user to physically go to an inaccessible collection point to pick up the product, the purpose is defeated. Yes, we do want the web accessibility requirements fully addressed but there should be an associated review of the business set up as well.
Coming to think of it, I can see many examples around me where the quality of an online experience is not followed up in the delivery of the actual service / business process. The priority seat booking in some of the low cost airlines that still requires the customers to wait in a long queue to make sure they get to keep their hand luggage on the aircraft with them. Another instance is when I booked classes for my son with a local swimming company, which had marketed their website in all flyers. The highly presentable website did not have the option to pay the fees online; hence the transaction did not end with my online activities, I had to follow up with a phone call to make the payment. While this could be true of any online service, the same principle is applicable to accessibility i.e., user experience as a topic is not limited to the web part of the customer’s journey in accessing a service.
An excellent example of getting this idea right is the ‘Accessible Tourism’ initiative by the public sector organisation Visit Scotland. The aim of this project is to encourage tourism businesses to consider making the full experience to be completely accessible. Right from practical tips around a disabled person using their facilities to case studies of success stories, there is extensive information provided to encourage businesses to make the overall experience fully accessible. This measure is to be appreciated as a step in the right direction to encourage the thought process of thinking through the end-to-end user experience.
Can you see such processes around you where the overall service experience is inconsistent with the online service?
It could be a project you are part of, an experience as a customer / end user? Can you imagine the frustration of such an experience? Perhaps it’s something we should bring to the attention of our clients / project teams who are on such missions. Project managers and business analysts need to look at this more closely perhaps? After all, it is the end-to-end user experience which ensures customer loyalty and complete user satisfaction.
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.
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.