Online Accessibility for Disabled Becomes a Must

Published on Mon, 06/01/2014, 10:52:51
By Alex Varley

Some web managers are sleeping very soundly in Canberra right now. They are the ones that have the National Transition Strategy requirements (NTS) well under control, and they are overhauling their web properties and online services.

The NTS is of course the government plan, unveiled in June 2010, which makes it mandatory for agencies to make all of their web and online services accessible for disabled people by the end of 2014.

Under the plan, all agencies have to be compliant with WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 Level AA before the end of next year. The progressive agencies are steadily making their websites, intranets and other online information easy to access for those people that have a disability.

These agencies have a plan and they are sticking to it. Others are going to get caught napping. The NTS needs to be fully implemented by the end of 2014. Sounds like a long time? Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security – there is much to do if you haven’t started already.
The reasons for the accessibility requirements are simple:

1. Almost 20 per cent of the population have some level of disability and can’t access a website unless accessibility is taken into account and incorporated.

2. With 5000 baby boomers turning 65 in Australia each day, age-related disability is on the rise, particularly vision, mobility and hearing loss.

3. Governments have a mandate to include all people, and provide information and services to all Australians, and online communications provide the best opportunity to do this efficiently and cost-effectively.

4. More government services are going online and expect consumers to do government business through them (including those with a disability). It is interesting that the revenue-collecting agencies seem to be the early adopters in sorting out accessibility.

5. It is mandated both by the government strategy, and is a requirement under Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act.

Given the deadline, why are some agencies not getting on with the job? In our experience of talking to lots of people in government and industry, the main issue is that it seems like an overwhelming task.

They are hopeful of a quick fix solution, or some form of accessibility magic bullet.

Some of have commissioned a web accessibility audit to see what is wrong with their online presence and have been daunted by the hundreds of errors and problems that are thrown up. Others have (wrongly) run an automatic checker across their site and declared them to be “not too bad really”.

They don’t realise that automatic checkers have their place, but are limited in what they pick up. They are really a tool for a skilled user who understands the issues and how to fix them. Others venture into looking at the W3C WCAG 2.0 guidelines and quickly discover a complex maze of information and suggestions.

So what should you do? My simplest advice is to start the task and look for easy wins and gradually build up the accessibility plan and compliance with the requirements. You also need to look at what kind of agency you are.

Start by educating some of your key people, such as web managers, on what is required under the web accessibility guidelines, so they that can undertake a basic audit of your site, and understand how to implement the changes needed. Also, select suppliers that really know their stuff.

We are making our own efforts to drive progress. Media Access Australia, which has the prime mandate of increasing access to media for disabled people, runs a training course for technical professionals, in tandem with UniSA. We train people over a six-week period, providing skills training for content editors and producers in the practical challenges of solving the document accessibility problem.

If you do more video/audio content then you need to focus on captioning, audio description and accessible ways of delivering media content. Again there is plenty of information about how to do this effectively, but please do not use the automatic captions on YouTube, they are very inaccurate and simply awful.

Sites with lots of images and diagrams need to have an early look at alt text and additional ways to present the information.

We also put considerable work into producing a free Service Providers Accessibility Guide for suppliers to the National Disability Insurance Scheme a few months ago. It has some basic tips and starting points to get you thinking about what might need to be done and how to do it. This Guide will not make you WCAG 2.0 AA compliant, but it will give you momentum.

One of the solutions will be to engage specialist consultants to help deal with specific issues and set up systems, but without some basic knowledge you are not getting best value and focus on the things that really matter. Again there are lots of resources in the market pitched at different levels to help you with this.

MAA created Access iQ to help provide industry and government with content, contacts and resources to help implement web accessibility. This has some free information around the issues, including accessible documents and PDFs, a directory of accessibility providers, and the just released premium guides covering the roles of content authors, developers and designers. We are proud to have been cited by international bodies as a world-class resource site for accessibility content.

Social media is now a very important communications tool and it too has differing levels of accessibility that your communications and marketing staff need to understand. How accessible is Facebook? Can blind people access your tweets? Are blogs and forums good places to contact the community?

MAA produced a free ground-breaking guide on this, which explains social media accessibility limitations, and quick-fix get around for different disabilities. This is used as the primary resource by the United States Federal Government for it social media accessibility policy and has been translated into other languages overseas.

A final word on consultants and their accessibility knowledge: It is very important to include the WCAG 2.0 Level AA requirements in any appropriate tender/EOT documents, but that is not the quick fix.

Like any conditions of tender, you need to understand what this means and how you will ensure that the supplier understands it too. Paying for a supplier to learn how to make things accessible once they have the job can be an expensive solution. We think it’s much better that your staff members are trained in accessibility skills in their own right.

So will Australian government agencies meet the NTS requirements? I am confident the vast majority will get most of it right and have the capacity and desire to fix some issues as they are uncovered.

However, there will also be a handful of agencies that don’t get it right and the main reason will be an unwillingness to get stuck in and try it. There are no excuses. People with disabilities have become pretty adept at working around small problems and are quite forgiving when an organisation has made a good effort to deal with them properly.

However, that 20 per cent of the population use government services and are very aware of their rights as public consumers to have full and proper access. They pay taxes too which the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) is very aware of and they sorted out their accessibility issues many years ago around the Tax Pack to ensure that they were capturing that revenue.

For some agencies there is a golden opportunity with the change of government. New department names and new programs and policies will mean that websites and online communications will need to be reworked; so now is a perfect time to fix some accessibility issues and introduce good practices.

From my perspective, it doesn’t matter what the catalyst is, find your reason to get started and get on with the job. People with a disability have a right to access the same information as anyone else. In Australia, we are playing catch up with the US and Europe in making our content accessible.

Accessible websites are essential to enabling people to be independent, make their own choices, and be included and active members of society.

*Alex Varley is the chief executive of Media Access Australia.

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