Category Archives: Information 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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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

Review of the second NZ Festival Shapeshifter sculpture exhibition Hutt Civic Gardens 26 Feb – 20 Mar 2016

I usually write accessibility reviews of arts events that have accessibility features. This time I decided to write one about a NZ Festival event which wasn’t accessible, but has the potential to be very accessible in future NZ Festivals. It would not be helpful to criticise access in this case without giving useful advice on how some relatively minor things could be done differently to make significant accessibility improvements.

It felt like the last day of summer the day we visited. The outdoors Shapeshifter exhibition was a welcome contrast to the nearby dark, cavernous and bleakly subterranean Dowse Gallery. What could be better then, than a leisurely outdoors wander around a pleasant garden exploring interesting sculpture in the warm sunshine? It was an experience both satisfying and, sadly, frustrating.

Us, a tactile low curved multi-faceted andeiste stone sculpture on a rough sleeper base. Sculptor Claire Sadler.

Us, a tactile low curved multi-faceted andeiste stone sculpture on a rough sleeper base. Sculptor Claire Sadler.

It was deeply satisfying and enjoyable to be able to get close and personal and touch many of the exhibits, because being displayed outside they had to be robust. They gave food for thought as well as the pure sensory delight of touch, colour, shape, form and texture, even rich, warm sound.

But the sunny weather brought its own problems. Because of the random location of exhibits and the unhelpful catalogue there was no guiding logical order to follow. Frequent reference to the catalogue was needed. Finding shade to remove my sunglasses and put on my reading glasses to struggle to read the small, grey text in the bright light created a significant barrier to my appreciation and enjoyment of the work. This wasn't helped by the tiny exhibit numbers in the catalogue, which were printed sideways.

This difficulty left me feeling tired and irritable, with a slight headache and overall disappointment with the experience, despite the variety, quality, tactile and interactive nature of the work. Towards the end I gave up, not having seen all the work. It was a case of paying the same as everyone else for a lesser value return.

This was a great pity, because, with some careful forethought and only a little more expense Shapeshifter could have been a very accessible experience.

Opening times

The daytime opening is ideal for older and disabled patrons who sometimes find evening events difficult, especially where there is a lack of public transport. This is a positive aspect of the exhibition. Fixing some of the other accessibility faults would be appreciated by older as well as disabled people.

Physical access

With a few adjustments, particularly at the entrance, most of the exhibition could be physically accessible. If an expert environmental access appraisal is sought for future Shapeshifter outdoor exhibitions, advertising could then include specific information on physical access.

Visitor welcome

We were welcomed very nicely at the entrance, but for me that was where it ended. Feeling welcome is more than a pleasant and friendly greeting.  I enjoyed encountering a group of new New Zealanders exploring the exhibition, along with lively groups of school children. Why not welcome blind, vision impaired and other disabled people to an engaging exhibition with such accessibility possibility.

Exhibition layout

A more thoughtful and logical layout and catalogue presentation for future exhibitions in this space would enable user-friendly navigation guidance for a more pleasurable visitor experience.

Catalogue

Having photographs of the sculptures was helpful, but the accompanying print size and quality was poor. The grey print and tiny sideways printed numbers were very difficult to read. A better quality print and colour contrast of text to background would be an improvement. Being able to download a large print copy in advance would be an extra and much appreciated accessibility feature.

Interaction

The robust nature of many exhibits, the scope for physical tactile interaction, including interactions to produce beautiful sounds, is one of the strong attractions for me, as a vision impaired person. This interactive element lends itself particularly to audio description for blind and vision impaired people.

The Shapeshifters exhibition had the potential to be very accessible. It could have been a more exciting addition to a NZ Festival which is positively and seriously including disability and Deaf access.