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Harnessing Digital Accessibility

The digital world is an increasingly vital part of our lives. Here we are, right now. You, me, and your device. You, me, your device, and millions of other kiwis perusing online spheres for information, love, consumer items, friendship, or education.

Perhaps today in the digital world you’ll get a job, pay a bill, or express yourself through an emoji. Maybe you’ll order groceries, find out how to get somewhere, or post a selfie. Whatever you do, there’s no denying that accessing the digital world is not just an add on anymore, for convenience. It’s now a basic human right, and it’s something that most of us find we need access to in order to be active and included members of society.

But is the digital world built for everyone? At the moment it isn’t, but it could be.

Despite our immersion in and reliance on all things digital, we don’t often stop to think about whether things like websites, software, or apps are accessible to us all. Thursday the 17th of May marks Global Accessibility Awareness Day for 2018 (GAAD). A day to get everyone conscious of, and talking about digital inclusion for people with disabilities.

People like Aine Kelly-Costello face day-to-day barriers accessing the digital world. Aine is blind. She told me about the struggle she had accepting a job without sighted assistance. “Some of the government-issued forms were not accessible with my screen reader--the synthesised speech software I need to use to read those forms.”

Aine explained her experience is not unique: "There are a lot of barriers in the digital world, which prevent people from readily accessing work, education, and information - areas which are crucial to enabling us to participate in society.”

Phil Turner works for the Blind Foundation as Business Lead for Access Advisors. His role supports government, organisations, and businesses to make websites more accessible. He shared some of the other common access barriers people face on a daily basis.

“A common issue for blind and low vision people is colour contrast of websites. Organisations often don’t take the time to think about if there is enough contrast between different colours.” For the many who live with low vision or colour contrast issues, this can be a major barrier to navigating a website. Many are forced to leave the website all together and miss out on doing what they set out to do.

Businesses and organisations forgetting to put captions on videos is another major barrier for those without hearing. Phil explained that captioning videos is not something that is difficult to do, yet many lack the awareness about digital accessibility to actually do it. “There are organisations that caption videos for $1 a minute. It costs nothing, but the difference it makes to people’s lives is huge.”

One in four New Zealanders live with a disability, which might hinder their access to the digital world. The implications of this are wide-reaching, given the online space is now more often than not the gateway to accessing employment, education, transferring money, buying consumer products or accessing information, just to name a few things.

All too often we still slip into equating accessibility barriers with the physical environment only. During the 70s and 80s there was an increase in awareness that the built environment needed to be more accessible, by installing ramps and more accessible toilets, for example. Although we’ve been operating online for a while now, it is still a relatively new environment - one where access barriers are frequently overlooked or not acknowledged at all.

Changes in the way we consume information is a good example of our rapid shift from the physical to the digital world, and the way we’ve got to go to make the online sphere accessible for all. “Take reading the newspaper. Most media is delivered online. At the moment, between 5 -10% of information out there is made accessible. That’s 90% of information that someone who is blind may have trouble accessing”, Phil highlighted.

When organisations, media, businesses and governments don’t prioritise digital accessibility when designing, building and developing software and websites, there are major social costs. The most successful and innovative societies are those where citizens have access to information. Knowledge is power, leading to engagement, education, employment, and success.

Not only do we create a more inclusive and successful society when we prioritise digital accessibility, but it also makes economic sense. Click-Away Pound is a research survey designed to explore the online shopping experience of people with disabilities and examine the cost to business of ignoring disabled shoppers. The survey found that failing to provide customers with accessible websites cost UK retailers £11.75 billion in 2015. “There’s so much in regards to digital accessibility that actually has economic and social outcomes. Getting accessibility right benefits everyone”, Phil shared.

Getting accessibility right is not only a bare minimum, but is also about harnessing the potential of the digital world to be a source of empowerment. Phil explained, “It is actually one of the most empowering things for people with a disability as well. It can, when done right, open doors they otherwise wouldn’t be able to go through. It has huge potential to make sure we all play on an equal playing field.”

Aine backed this up, highlighting that something as simple as accessible online food shopping options can make a huge difference for someone who is blind or has low vision. “It gives us the autonomy to have the option of shopping on our own. Ordering groceries online and being able to pick them up is an example of the way the digital world can be a source of empowerment for us, when website accessibility is taken into account."

In supporting businesses, government and organisations to make their digital spheres inclusive and accessible for all kiwis, Phil sees accessibility as crucial. But for this to happen people need to prioritise digital accessibility when they are building and designing their websites. Although government currently has standards for website accessibility, many business’, organisations and even the government themselves are falling short of meeting these standards.

Aine is a part of the Access Matters campaign, aiming to make Aotearoa accessible for all by bringing in accessibility legislation. For the Access Matters campaign, accessibility legislation is at the heart of a more inclusive Aotearoa. “A law”, Aine explained, “would set and clarify expectations, standards, and timeframes, and would guide organisations toward positive change in the area of digital accessibility and beyond.”

Across New Zealand, people with disabilities are facing barriers to accessing the digital world, and consequently, barriers to being included and active members of our society. Creating a society where people have full access to information, news, jobs, employment, government services, and the many other things the digital world makes possible, would benefit us all.

Today GAAD urges us to acknowledge the barriers to digital accessibility. But also, to think about what a fully accessible digital world would look like. To understand that this is a realistic and achievable goal. At the moment the digital world isn’t built for everyone, but it could be – emojis and all. If we choose to prioritise digital accessibility going forward.

The Access Matters campaign is lead by the Access Alliance, a group of twelve disability organisations. If you would like to support the Access Matters Campaign please visit www.accessalliance.org.nz - here you can read more stories about why kiwis support an accessibility act, and share your own story too

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