Category Archives: Information Accessibility

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

Colour contrast counts! A cautionary tale

Information accessibility challenges can pop up in unexpected places.

Recently I was talking to someone involved with an amateur dramatic society. Billboards were designed for the latest production. The billboards, complete with fancy font for branding, were displayed in and around the small country town where my friend lives. On the computer screen they looked great. But he discovered to his annoyance that when driving past them at the open road speed they were unreadable. Some retrofitting was needed. A steady handed volunteer was recruited to outline the lettering in black to increase visibility.

Before: digital image

Before: digital image

After: modified billboard

After: modified billboard

My friend reflected ruefully on the problem. He decided that in future he would stick to plainer fonts, never mind the branding. He also decided to do what he perhaps ought to have done at the beginning of the process. He tested the contrast on the electronic version of the billboards with a colour contrast analyser. It failed.

Lessons learned.

The principles of universal design and accessibility are indeed universal. Everyone, not just disabled people, will benefit from their application.

Think about what your audience needs before worrying about the branding.

Things that look great on your computer screen might not look good anywhere else.

Colour contrast really does count!

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Filed under Inclusion, Information Accessibility, The Arts

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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Political party web sites fall short

Disabled people often rely on the Internet for information because many other information sources are inaccessible.  They experience accessibility barriers when finding and using information on the web if sites have not been designed and built with accessibility in mind.

Why we audited  political party web sites

“Can we all come to the party” is a report we produced at AccEase to see how easily people with disability can engage with party political websites before the New Zealand election on September 20th. The report says “Voting and participation in the electoral process is a fundamental human right.”

Civil and political rights enshrined in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Bill of Rights and the CRPD all require that rights such as access to the political process and public life need to be implemented immediately. While political parties are private bodies for the purposes of the New Zealand Human Rights Act, they have a moral obligation to provide accessible information for people who may not have access to other sources of information.

Disabled people are 24% of the New Zealand population, and people of voting age will be the majority of that group as children have lower rates of disability than older people, and rates of disability increase with age. Political parties should see that it is in their interest to make sure their information is accessible so people can have the information they need to choose freely.

Some findings

Some of the faults the report identified included:  the lack of an “Accessibility” page to describe features to help a disabled person use the site, a lack of clear alt text explaining images to help blind and screen-reader users access the site, and poor colour contrast on navigation.

Only one site included Sign Language video. Only a few sites included video of any kind. Of these some included captions but none had transcripts.

Keyboard-only users were poorly served. One site provided no access at all; others had various problems.

Over half the sites did not provide an alternative navigation mechanism such as a site map.

Reflections

Since completing the report we have reflected on the experience of auditing the web sites of the political parties. Overall they are no worse than web sites generally. But the benchmark is not high. This is quite frustrating for people who really need accessible web sites as we have had standards now for some years, and the web is full of freely available quality information about accessibility. The current state of the art in New Zealand is not good enough.

The eighty-twenty rule still applies. Accessibility is eighty percent attitude and twenty percent expertise.

While we know that creating an accessible web site is less effort than national door knocking, even allowing for the possible advantages of face-to-face exchange; but it seems a hard message for people to absorb.

Without video, for example, it is just as easy to post an accessible version of a document first. Now with auto captions, which do need checking, video can be easily loaded. Contrast, heading structures and so on are not rocket science. Most accessibility features are relatively straightforward to implement, even for smaller parties with fewer resources.

We hope we have set a useful example of publishing accessibly online.

There is also a summary table of our findings

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