Category Archives: Web Accessibility

Let’s fix the process

If you need New Zealand public sector websites to be accessible to use them satisfactorily then the “2014 Web Standards Self-Assessments Report” published in November 2015 won’t give you much comfort.

The good news, such that it is, is that the report’s authors appear to be circling in on the root causes of the problem.

“…NZ Government websites are designed and developed in a manner that tends to overlook the range of ways that people access and interact with web content.”

One has to wonder what goes through the minds of website owners, designers, developers and content creators if they “overlook the range of ways that people access and interact with web content”. Isn’t that the very meat and potatoes of the whole web development process? Accessing and interacting with content is the point of a website – and from a range of people. Quickly exposing desired content to an audience and protecting them from overload or unnecessary navigation is the nub of web design. It’s not primarily about creating a pleasing graphic and balanced palette (although that doesn’t hurt). And, it’s most definitely not about slavishly adhering to egregious visual excesses in the name of “branding”.

There is another puzzle here. Commercial (private sector) websites in general have some sort of sales intent. Their purpose is to in some way persuade the user of the value of their business or more specifically to try and sell the user some products or services. The public sector doesn’t have that sales drive: its purpose is to provide service and enable access and interaction using the convenience of the internet. In short, for public sector websites, it’s all about engaging with web content as part of providing a service to the public at large.

So what or where does the deficiency lie? The deficiency is in overlooking “the range of ways”.

In web design, the responsibility to cater for the range of ways that people access or interact with web content is within the scope of the user experience (UX) designer. A usual technique is to create personas. Personas are fictitious composites that are created to represent broad classes of the types of people who are expected to access the website. For example, the Ministry of Justice might expect lawyers, jury members, media representatives, litigants and judges to access its website. A persona could be created for each of these and through the design process the needs of each persona is factored in. The design can be subsequently validated by matching how well it is expected to deliver against the stated needs of each of the personas.

So far so good, but this is the point where I believe that the process fails. Why? Because in the development of the personas it is unlikely that consideration is made of potential impairments. Hence, the potential access (accessibility) needs aren’t embedded into the design process. In the development of some sites, some sort of accessibility review may take place but it is generally too late to make changes. The design signoff processes in the public sector can be so involved that the idea of repeating that process just looks too difficult, let alone having to make the explanations of why it wasn’t right the first time. (As an aside, in the time I’ve been consulting for AccEase I’ve never been asked to review the personas. I’ve checked wireframes, checking off against a range of ways the site will be accessed but pretty much always in the certainty that the range of ways of accessing a site hasn’t been designed in and certainly not included in the personas.)

The notion of developing personas including people with disabilities isn’t new. Shawn Lawton Henry, a renowned web accessibility expert,  has even provided example personas.

The “2014 Web Standards Self-Assessments Report” identified three types of people (personas?) that are not properly considered:

  • people who don’t use a mouse and instead rely on a keyboard or other input device and software to interact with web content
  • people with impaired vision
  • people who use special software to help them interpret and understand the structure and relationships between different bits of content on a web page (e.g. what’s a heading, what’s a list item, etc.)

It is up to User Experience designers to ensure that the full range of users are properly catered for.

Where else in the web development lifecycle would it make sense for accessibility to be addressed? Any time later is at severe risk of missing out a design consideration for a range of users. The classic approach is to “test it in” by doing an accessibility assessment once the build is complete and then apply the recommended changes. As noted above, this approach fails as designers are often unwilling to make changes and signoff procedures too cumbersome to achieve meaningful change. This approach also consigns “accessibility” to being an inconvenient afterthought, an encumbrance.

Process vs Technical change

Generally, the resolution to achieving a better state of web accessibility is considered to be the application of the technical elements that afford accessibility. However, I contend that it is a process change that will lead to a better state of web accessibility in our public sector websites. The technical elements do, of course, need to be applied but at present that fails to happen as there are often no explicit requirements generated in the user experience design.

In simple terms, let’s first think of the user (the ends) and then of the standards (the means).

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A personal perspective on arts access

I spend a lot of time advocating for various forms of arts access for disabled people. For once I thought I would share some of my own personal views of things I dislike most about museums, galleries and theatres, and a few things I like too. Don’t get me wrong, I love GLAM, (galleries, libraries, archives and museums,) theatre and music performances; I have done so all my life. But as a vision-impaired person, as distinct from blind, I often feel frustrated by the simple changes that could be made that would be helpful for many arts patrons, especially in an ageing community. As a lifelong arts patron I think I, and others like me, deserve better. Currently we often pay the same price as everyone else for a lesser experience.

Here are some of my pet peeves, and likes, starting from the beginning of the process, which can stop me in my tracks.

Advertising is often unreadable. Accessibility options are buried on web sites and difficult to find. Its fine to have aesthetic design but communication with an audience is paramount. Web sites and other advertising are often designed with art rather than access in mind. The two aren’t incompatible. The New Zealand Festival is making progress this year with an easily found accessibility section on the web site, (although an access link would be even better on the home page.) The Fringe, not so much. A shame as Fringe events may be within the budgets of more disabled people.

Booking is often difficult and expensive and plain inaccessible in many cases. I love Circa Theatre for their friendly and direct regular booking process. Chamber Music NZ  and New Zealand Opera also have user-friendly ticketing for audio described performances. The booking process should be easy, with accessible alternatives if necessary.

Lighting can be very poor in places where I most need it, such as reading my programme or catalogue, often difficult to read anyway, or on labels on exhibits. Carefully targeted lighting is possible. Transitions from light to dark, in particular are often inadequately managed and a bit scary.

Clutter and wayfinding. Museums often leave me exhausted with sensory overload and a struggle to find one thing to focus on, with so much sound and vision all together all at once. I realised how much I miss when I get a little taste of audio description. Poor lighting can contribute to this confusion.

Print materials are generally designed to look good rather than for readability. A downloadable more readable and accessible version would help. Labelling in galleries and museums could be easier to read, with larger, clearer print, or again downloadable so I can read them on my chosen device in comfort.

Libraries.  As a passionate reader, I am a regular user of our precious public libraries. Here there has been a real change. I use an online catalogue to find my chosen reading matter, but best of all, public librarians will, without question, help me find things on the shelves. In the past I found librarians rather intimidating and unhelpful. I don’t use the Blind Foundation library as I can read some print, often on my iPad. If the government ratifies the Marrakesh Treaty there should be more large print books available too.

Disability experience reflected in art, culture and heritage.  Last but not least we, disabled people, and our stories on our terms are largely absent. So-called “outsider” art is fashionable and collectable, but often not seen alongside “real” artists’ work in mainstream galleries in New Zealand yet. Theatre is slowly beginning to explore our stories, and disabled performing artists are appearing. But we still have a long way to go. Our heritage and history on our terms are not included in museums, and literary writing by disabled people is invisible. I have found few books on disability subjects I can relate to in our libraries by New Zealanders. Popular media stories are not the answer as they reflect unrealistic stereotypes. I want to see and hear and read “real” stories like mine.

What can we do? I am a practical person who tries to find solutions to the problems I encounter. In the research I have done over the years I know there is a lot of help available, and some wonderful stories to be told, and I’m not talking about sob stories, super crips or inspiration porn either, but human nuanced stories well presented. Our history, sometimes uncomfortable, unsafe and shameful, is largely untold in heritage institutions.

There are also opportunities missed. For example the wonderful Shapeshifter sculpture exhibition at the last NZ Festival would have been an audio describer’s dream as most exhibits in the outdoor exhibition were touchable. Perhaps this year? Cultural festivals such as the Chinese New Year, Cuba Dupa and Diwali, have possibility too. We have terrific trained audio describers in Wellington who are really keen to work.

Making change is not always easy. The disabled audience is diverse, and has to be cultivated and developed.  But talk to us, engage with us on social media and in person. Often the people factor is the most important. There are Arts Access Advocates who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, often arts practitioners ourselves. The skilled and helpful people at Arts Access Aotearoa, have a wealth of resources available, some of which I helped create. These resources include a much wider range of arts access ideas, tools and advice than I have covered in this personal account. Most are free.

But don’t take the expertise of individual disabled people for granted. We are experts just like curators and other staff. That needs recognition in the same way.

We are an ageing population. Arts institutions need to retain us as audience. The arts are a critical part of my life. I desperately want to keep it that way.  We, disabled people are 24% of the population, and growing. Ignoring and excluding us as patrons and participants is not an option.

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The promise of technology

I’m hopelessly late in my post for the International Day of Disabled People, on December 3, and somewhat late to mark International Human Rights Day on December 10, and very late to review the National Disability Forum (NDF) conference in late November. But the theme for the International Day of Disabled People is important, and worth writing about, even if it is after the event. Sustainable development, the promise of technology has wide and powerful application in the digital age.

Late last month I was at the National Digital Forum Conference for the first time. I had been looking forward to it very much since joining the digital forum. I love the GLAM, (galleries, libraries and museum) sector. It represents exciting possibilities for innovative digital inclusion. While I found the conference stimulating and interesting, I also found it very frustrating and exclusive. The reality was a more risk-averse, resource-constrained approach generally associated with publicly funded bodies than the inclusive and innovative challenge the ridiculous optimist within me had hoped for.

The conference was well organised and we were asked for accessibility requirements at registration, always a good start. Temperature variation and a lack of natural light make Te Papa a trying and tiring venue, but that is often the nature of the beast. I liked the newbies meet and greet, but felt a bit unsure about the knowledge sharing session. It can be a bit lonely being the only disabled person with that interest at a “mainstream” conference, but I should be used to that.

The programme was varied, with the usual problem of choosing between streams. It was good to see Tom Smith there from the Blind Foundation demonstrating on the second day. A kindred spirit.

A powerful impression was that digital is visual, which was disappointing. In conversation I discovered that digital sound had been included at an earlier conference. There was a slight tone of “oh we have done that.” The same could be true of the absence of Sign Language content, which fits very well in the visual digital space. Yet the Deaf community is particularly innovative in harnessing digital technology for Sign Language communication. I didn’t see any captioning. Nor did I hear any mentioning of audio description in relation to iBeacons for example. Yet these are international growth areas with enormous potential. I heard no mention of alt attributes for interesting historic photographs, when discussing collecting and displaying them either.

The opening presentation by Brewster Kahle from the Open Library was informative and engaging. When he talked about universal access he meant it. He included access for blind and dyslexic people in a matter-of-fact context as a critical and integral part of business as usual for a modern library. I liked his approach. I will make a digital will, thanks to Rick Shera. I love the idea of crowd-sourced collections. Exploring publishing at a time of digital upheaval in the industry is fascinating and relevant.

Attending everything was impossible, so I may have inadvertently missed something important. The one event I had really looked forward to was the biggest disappointment. Perhaps I was tired at the end of two full on days, and I certainly was coming down with a cold. People sitting around me were obviously captivated by the MONA, (Museum of Old and New Art) from Tasmania presentation, but I did sense some unease in the wider audience. Was it a giant ego trip, a monumental folly or a truly ground-breaking innovative endeavour taking GLAMs to a new level? I still don’t know since the presentation was inaccessible.

Perhaps others in the audience were reflecting on the practicality of an example of a well-funded privately owned museum with no public accountability or obligation for the largely publicly owned and funded New Zealand GLAM institutions.

I don’t expect be able to read or follow in detail all slides and visual presentations, but many other speakers used their visual presentations as an aid rather than depending on them entirely.

I would have walked out if I could. Being conservative or older is not the reason for my discontent. I am not conservative. (I wasn’t bothered by the allusion to “porn”.) I am open to and interested in the new. That was why I was there. MONA is reputed to be successful. But success on whose terms? Not mine. I will think twice about including it on my schedule when I visit Tasmania.

I heard statements like, “Being smarter about digitisation”, “Ensuring sustainable access to Community content”,  “Manage risk, encourage innovation”, “failure, success and challenge”, “taking risk”, “design thinking”, ”collaboration”, “user experience”, “Get on with it”. But the promise of technology, the challenge, and the opportunity it presents to the Digital Forum members is to include nearly a quarter of the population in access in their work. The challenge and opportunity is also to rectify our almost complete invisibility in the content in mainstream art and heritage. Is inclusion of everyone by fulfilling the promise of technology a risk too far for the New Zealand GLAM community? I hope not.

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Re-thinking disability advisory groups for community engagement

For some years now many disabled people have been involved in advisory groups. These are usually established to enable organisations such as local government, central government, health organisations or other national and local bodies to meet their obligations towards disabled people.

These advisory groups are not limited to the disability community  - but my reflections on their workings are.

As some advisory groups exist now there are problems resulting from a lack of commitment, or a tokenistic approach to “doing the right thing” rather than a real desire to include disabled people’s perspectives for effective results. Those working with them admit they don’t always work and that there is a need for change.

Disabled people are nearly a quarter of the population now at 24%, (Statistics New Zealand,) and the present approach needs some serious re-thinking.

Some problems

Selection of the group is often not by the community, or collaborative, and is controlled by the organisation, so there is inadequate community “buy-in” and support for the group. It is perceived as closed and exclusive and not representative of the whole community. There is a risk that results will be biased by a narrow range of views.

Groups may not be truly interactive with the organisation and endure “death by PowerPoint” with no real opportunity for critique, innovation and meaningful exchange. Members may not have access to all the information they need in ways they can process.

Groups can be low-status, perceived by everyone as powerless, and have little access to the real decision makers.

Members may serve for some time and become co-opted by the organisation, especially if they do not have strong community accountability. This can be the result of poor recruitment processes, and the substitution of an advisory group for strong, mutually respectful community relationships.

Members may have no real community constituency and therefore no real accountability. If they are invisible they will be talked about rather than engaged in constructive conversations within the disability community that will inform and further their work.

The group may not have the expertise or be adequately resourced to do the essential networking or for outreach to maintain a healthy two-way flow of information to inform the process of engagement.

Organisations can subtly control what they hear by setting the purpose and agenda of the group too rigidly. This might be entirely unintentional but results in a lack of creative space for new community concerns, voices and issues to emerge.

In some instances an exclusive relationship with an advisory group may create barriers to wider communication, or be used to discourage different or new voices. The group itself may become a two-way barrier. In the worst cases the existence of a group may be an excuse for a lack of wider engagement, and less rather than more knowledge within the organisation about the disability community.

Of course there are some groups that work well, with few of the above problems, but there is an air of cynical world-weariness among disabled people when this subject comes up in conversation. There is a strong belief that disabled people’s contribution is not valued, and they sometimes even feel “ripped off”

A new approach

It is time for a new, more sophisticated and pluralistic, open and accessible style of disability community consultation and engagement..

Here are a few suggestions.

  • Take a positive stance, forget narrowly focused “accommodating” and ghettoising in favour of valuing disabled people and acknowledging the contribution they make to your organisation and the wider community by making an inclusive approach “business as usual.”
  • Advisory groups should flow from strong and respectful community relationships rather than the other way around. They should not be the sole means of engagement with the disability community.
  • Accessibility is established as “business as usual” in wider community conversations and other activities. Disabled people are interested in other things besides disability.
  • Trust disabled communities and disabled people’s organisations to take the lead. But look beyond the usual suspects and recognised service groupings. Spread the net widely.
  • Organise well-facilitated face-to-face meetings in small groups or within communities
  • Where possible assist with capacity and community building to build strong relationships.
  • Offer training in engagement methods and strategy to the disabled community
  • Engage through focused and moderated social media.
  • Accessible online platforms can encourage straightforward well-structured conversations, but should not be used exclusively.
  • Recognise and celebrate the rich diversity of the disability world, taking account of intersections such as ethnicity and culture, gender, LGBTI, family status, and so on in the rich weave of community fabric.
  • Look for the grassroots leaders who know and are known and respected by everyone, not just a small single-impairment-focused group.
  • Honestly confront, acknowledge, explore and navigate the inevitable power imbalances inherent in relationships with communities, especially those who are marginalised.
  • Last, but certainly not least, employ qualified disabled people in meaningful, valued roles where they can help with disability community engagement.

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