Category Archives: Information Accessibility

Digital for life

Like most problems disabled people have to face, the problem of digital inclusion, or exclusion, is complex. Those who have a stake in the remedy/ies often don’t grasp the full extent of the complexity. We are left with the problem being addressed in fragments, with little connection between the fragments, and little involvement from the people whose stakes are highest, the disabled technology users. Defining digital inclusion narrowly so it is “doable” may result in inadequate and untenable solutions. Those of us who have worked in this area for many years feel as if we are running on the spot making limited progress.

Last week I attended a meeting about digital inclusion. I experienced some of the above. This is not about criticising people who, like disabled people, have been struggling to gain traction on a wicked problem. But one size of solution won’t fit all, and the problems are compounded by intersectionalities among the groups most digitally excluded.

The barriers to digital inclusion for disabled people are:

Cost – This goes well beyond the cost of the Internet connection. While the cost of assistive tech is nothing like the enormous cost it used to be, it still costs money, even the accessible out-of-the-box tech, like iPhones and iPads. Everything costs something and many disabled people and their families are among the poorest in New Zealand. There is also a constant need to update and upgrade. People are expected to be more responsible for their own personal technology in education and work, never mind everyday life. Technology is an added cost to an already high cost of living with disability. For example, a person may be able to use a regular smart phone, but may need a top-of-the-line model to meet their particular access needs

Access – following on from financial cost is the policy assumption that access to the digital world relates solely to education and work – an outdated view that does not take into account how connected our world is, and how socially isolated many disabled people are. Digital inclusion relates to nearly every facet of 21st century life. Exclusion can create problems as fundamental as establishing identity in formal settings such as banks and government departments.

What’s the best assistive tech for me? – Older disabled people may not have used much digital technology. Families with young disabled children are still struggling to get to grips with their changed lives. Many disabled people are poorly educated and may have limited access to information about technology choices. As in many other areas of disabled people’s lives useful information is hard to find, particularly if your service provider is not focused on digital access, and there are many disabled people with more than one impairment, while others receive little or no disability support service

How do I get the best out of the technology? – Skilled help with assistive technology is hard to find if you are not part of an impairment group with access to specific help. People don’t always know how or who to ask for help.

Do I have the right skills? – Some groups of disabled people may miss out on acquiring good skills using regular technology such as web and other applications, Word, Excel etc. Their education may have been poor, and as adults they have had no access to training using assistive technology in conjunction with regular software and applications.

Compatibility – A person may have the appropriate assistive technology, but connection with the technology in education or workplace settings can pose problems of compatibility. There may be a reluctance to modify either on the part of the employer, or even the IT service provider. I have had personal experience of the latter in a very senior role, and have talked to many other disabled people who have faced similar difficulties, preventing them from doing their job properly, limiting their opportunities and career prospects.

Mainstream research excludes us – Disabled people are often excluded from research projects, either because of an inaccessible methodology and process, or because the researchers don’t know how to contact them or communicate with them.  They may be seen as a “different” or “atypical” group, or just too hard. But at 24% of the population they are far from insignificant, even though they are diverse.

Little consultation – Disabled people of all ages need to be closely involved in deciding what technology will work for them, and how to use it. They also need to be included in consulting on and setting “big picture” policy and other decisions made about assistive technology. Involving a few “geeks” and disabled specialists is not enough. While I have seen meetings and forums about transport, employment, equal education, I have never seen an open access digital forum specifically for disabled people.

Technologists, policy-makers and researchers don’t know enough and don’t share or co-ordinate their work – It’s not enough to know about the technologies and their applications. Digital inclusion, and the knowledge to create it requires a more holistic approach, and knowledge sharing. The disability world is complex and intersects with other disadvantaged groups, for example, disabled Maori, disabled parents.

The battle for online accessibility, where the technology can be more important than the end-user experience, is a case in point. While this is possibly true for all user experience, for disabled people it is more critical as there is less choice for information access. The technology should never come before the people.

This is a human rights issue, and the underpinnings for this are little understood by those working in the field. Articles 9 and 21 of the UN Convention on the rights of disabled people are particularly relevant. Accessibility is Outcome 5 of the revised Disability Strategy and has a focus on Universal Design. What this means in practice requires thorough exploration alongside disabled people.

Digital inclusion is now huge. We are expected every day to interact and transact online with banks, insurance, businesses and retailers of all kinds, a variety of government departments, local government, health service providers, travel and entertainment bookings, education and work. There are eftpos terminals, ATMs, self-check-in kiosks, news, entertainment of various kinds and social media to navigate, and the technologies all change and update frequently. New opportunities arise in areas such as the arts. This is all likely to increase. Disabled people will continue to be seriously disadvantaged in many areas of life if digital inclusion is not tackled seriously.

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Filed under Accessible Engagement, Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Inclusion, Information Accessibility, Web Accessibility

The more things change the more they stay the same.

Ten years ago this August the United Nations completed the negotiations for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, (CRPD.) at the UN in New York. It was a huge relief that the wheeling and dealing was over, and we’d got much of what we wanted. Of course the real work was just beginning. But we all set off to party on that hot August night.

Disabled people in New Zealand were optimistic about the CRPD and the leading role New Zealand had taken in its development. The first NZ Disability Strategy was still fresh, the Sign Language Act was passed that year and the last of the big institutions was closing. The Disabled Persons Employment Promotion Act, which allowed sheltered workshops to avoid employment rights for many disabled workers, was repealed the following year. As a result of all of the above, New Zealand won the prestigious Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award for 2007.

Ten years later how has implementation of the CRPD fared?

The New Zealand government ratified the CRPD in 2008, and is showing willing to ratify the optional protocol. The government is positive about ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty, but needs encouragement. We have a disability rights human rights commissioner, disabled people’s organisations are working more closely with government, and the sixteen-year-old Disability Strategy is finally being reviewed.

But I have a sense of unease and disillusion in the disability community. As always money is tight. The Convention Coalition set up as part of the monitoring mechanism for the CRPD seems to have lost its funding and there aren’t seats around the government table for groups of disabled people who don’t have their own national representative organisations. The same old issues are raising their heads with depressing lack of progress among the now 24% of New Zealanders who are disabled.

  • There are problems with exclusion and the funding of “special” education.
  • Maori and Pacific disabled people are behind others in most social indicators
  • There is a small group of vulnerable disabled people who aren’t criminals detained without redress for significant lengths of time.
  • Disabled women in New Zealand still have no strong national voice of our own.
  • Access to the built environment, NZS4121 and enforcing legislation are desperately in need of review, reform and modernising.
  • There is no sign of legislative reform and change in mental health provisions and the Adoption Act, contentious at the time of the CRPD ratification.
  • Assisted decision making does not seem to be on the public agenda
  • Employment remains an intractable issue
  • There is no indication that the troubling inequity between health and ACC services will change
  • Disability data formerly collected with the census will be collected less regularly and there is unease about disability data and how it will be gathered.
  • Safety and fear of violence and abuse are common, and related community services are not dealing well with disabled people.
  • Government and other public web sites are not as accessible as they should be.
  • Disabled people’s representative organisations are stretched and under-resourced and need time and space to develop their own agendas.
  • Disabled people worry about negative public attitudes and behaviour and media coverage and portrayal.
  • The consultations on the draft disability strategy raised concern about the lack of a strategic approach and an individual rather than  a systemic and structural focus. Disabled people are also suspicious about accountability and impatient with the extended time frame for implementing the new strategy.
  • Act MP David Seymour recently referred to the 24% of disabled New Zealanders as “a worthy cause.”

There is still much to be done.

Years ago I used to say, half-jokingly, that I would be old and grey before there is any real substantial change. I am now old and grey, and, sadly, my facetious prediction seems to have come true.

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Filed under Disability Rights, Inclusion, Information Accessibility, Web Accessibility, Women

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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Filed under Accessible Engagement, Information Accessibility, Web Accessibility

Disableism, the book famine and the Marrakesh Treaty

It is only too evident to disabled people on a daily basis that disableism is all-pervasive. Sometimes it is intentional. Mostly it isn’t. It ranges from “The little acts of degradation to which other people subject us, those little reminders to us that we need to know our place in the world,” such as the comment in the supermarket, the unwelcome question from a complete stranger, to the systemic acts of discrimination. An example: the NZ government can take a child for adoption from a disabled mother without her consent, under Section 8 of the Adoption Act, simply because she is disabled.

These actions, large and small, but no less damaging to the individual disabled person, flow from a deep-seated, ancient cultural view that disability of almost any kind makes you a lesser being than others. There are also degrees within the disability world of this “lesserness.”

Disableism on a grand scale

Disableism also exists on a grand and international scale. Access to information, in particular books and print material, affects many disabled people. The publishing industry and public libraries have traditionally taken little account of accessibility until recently, seeing access for print-disabled people as a charitable endeavour, partly because of technical limitations. Now technology has advanced to the point where the demand for access cannot be ignored, although copyright has been a thorny issue for the various interests involved.

April 23 was International Copyright Day, and the links between this and Blogging against Disableism Day, May 1 seemed fortunately coincidental. There are now powerful tools available to us to address at least some of the systemic disableism. They flow from the acceptance that human rights, codified for disabled people in the CRPD, can drive change.

The book famine

Literacy, and access to printed material is something taken for granted and expected in western countries. Yet in countries such as New Zealand only 10 percent of print material is available to blind and vision impaired and other print-disabled people. In developing countries it can be as little as one percent. Millions of people worldwide, including children and students are being denied access to books and other printed material.

In NZ and similar countries there are delays in accessing important education materials such as textbooks. Many general book titles are not available in accessible formats at all.

The Marrakesh Treaty

The World Blind Union and others have worked hard to combat the “book famine.” The result is The Marrakesh Treaty, which will directly address the problem. Firstly, it will enable “authorised entities,” such as blind people’s organisations and libraries, to more easily reproduce works into accessible formats (braille, DAISY, audio, large print, e-books, etc.), for non-profit distribution. Secondly, the Treaty will permit authorised entities to share accessible books and other printed materials across borders with other authorised entities.

Currently the international system does not allow for cross-border sharing, leading to needless and expensive duplication of books by organisations with limited resources.

When the Marrakesh Treaty comes into force, cross-border sharing will be legal, which will help avoid duplication of reproduction efforts in different countries. The Treaty will also enable countries with large collections of accessible books to share them with blind and print-disabled people in countries with fewer resources. This will help print-disabled people in developing countries.

Cross-border sharing is essential for combating the book famine as blind and partially sighted people are among the poorest people in most countries, and organisations for and of blind people often don’t have the resources needed to produce enough materials in accessible formats.

Ending the disadvantage

Those of us who are blind and print-disabled want to be able to go to a bookshop or library to pick up and read the new bestseller like everyone else. Blind and partially sighted children want to be able to go to school and to become literate just as much as their sighted peers do.

I am angry and distressed when I find smart disabled people with their life choices and opportunities hampered by their lack of literacy. Sometimes it is about teaching and opportunity, but often it is about access to age-appropriate print materials. Education is the key to life opportunity, such as fulfilling work, continuing learning and community participation as citizens. But it is also important to be able to enjoy the simple pleasure of reading to expand our horizons and enable us to explore other worlds beyond our own experience.

Ratifying the Treaty

The Marrakesh Treaty will begin to tackle the book famine, once it is ratified and implemented. The Treaty and its benefits will only apply to countries that have ratified it, and it will only come into force once it has been ratified by 20 countries. Currently, the Treaty has been ratified by 15 countries, making it possible for the treaty to come into force in 2016.

It is important that those of us who will benefit from the Marrakesh Treaty pressure our governments to ratify it, and end this disableism, the lifelong disadvantage of lack of access to the wider world of learning and the simple pleasure of reading enjoyed by everyone else.

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Filed under Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Inclusion, Information Accessibility, The Arts