ICT Accessibility is important today. But will it be important in 5 years time and what will it look like? What should organisations that are involved, interested or dependent on ICT Accessibility be planning for over the next 5 years?
Firstly, a short definition of ICT Accessibility to ensure that we are all on the same page. The international standard ISO 9241-171:2008 (Ergonomics of human-system interaction — Part 171: Guidance on software accessibility) defines accessibility as:
"Usability of a product, service, environment or facility by people with the widest range of capabilities"
The term "widest range of capabilities" is really a politically correct way of saying "including people with disabilities".
This article will use a slightly more limited definition:
"ICT for people with disabilities including: vision, hearing, speech, muscular-skeletal, learning and ageing".
Ageing is included not because it is a disability in its own right but because as we age we will tend to become less able through diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's or failing eyesight or hearing.
To try and answer the questions this article will look back 5 years, look at the present and then extrapolates 5 years in to the future.
ICT Accessibility is complex intertwined area so the discussion will be based around the following questions:
- How important is it for an individual to access digital information?
- What is the impact of laws, legislation and standards?
- Are decision makers aware of the requirements and benefits?
- Do the various professionals have the implementation skills?
- How does technology help or hinder?
How important is it for an individual to access digital information?
This is the key question that influences changing views on accessibility.
Primary sources of information and services were offline: paper, telephone or face-to-face. In some cases alternative formats were offered, for example Braille or large print. Some basic information (brochureware) and some bleeding edge services were available on-line.
The majority of the population were not regular users of the Internet. People with disabilities had access to the information and services they needed off-line and access to digital information was not that important. However, there was an awakening to the potential benefits of access to digital information, especially amongst those with vision impairments who could access such information through screen-readers rather than being dependent on the information being transformed into another format.
Digital is the preferred channel for most providers: how often do you hear/see "for more information go to our website"? This implies that the information is on the web but not available in any off-line format. Better service is now provided via online shopping, banking and travel than is available face-to-face or via the telephone. In particular there is a strong push in the public sector towards e-government as a way of providing better services more efficiently; hardcopy documents and forms will continue to be provided but only grudgingly.
Some providers have gone the next step with information and services only available on-line: Amazon, iTunes, EasyJet, comparison web sites etc. Where possible the product has also gone digital: music and electronic books. We are seeing the slow death of printed books; for example Amazon now sell more electronic than paper versions of some titles and the Oxford University Press has announced that it is not going to produce another printed version of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is now only be available on-line.
The other major area of push towards the need to access on-line is the meteoric rise of social networks of all sorts.
Lack of access to digital information, services and products is now serious enough to have a name, 'the Digital Divide'. Those on the wrong side of the divide are now disadvantaged but can still survive.
According to the Office for National Statistics about 1 in 5 UK adults are not on-line. This group includes people who are old, poor, or lack the necessary skills and also a small group who who wish to remain off-line.
The British Computer Society (BCS) has just published a report that shows access to IT makes people happier; not only does it enable people to do things better but it also improves their view of their quality of life.
Unfortunately some people with disabilities find themselves on the wrong side of the divide, even though they are keen to be on the right side, because the information, services and products are not provided in an accessible form.
By 2015 the trend from off-line to digital information, services and products will be complete. Anything that can be provided digitally will be digital by default and will only be available in other formats by request, if at all, and probably at a premium.
By this date anyone on the wrong side of the divide will find it very difficult to carry on as a member of society. They will lack access to basic government-supplied services, most commercial services such as insurance, banking, many retail outlets, and all electronic social networks.
There will be pressure from a new group, "the recently old". This group will have been using digital channels for some years and will be furious if they cannot continue to do so because of illnesses of old age.
As the digital divide closes down it is essential that people with disabilities are not left on the wrong side through no fault of their own and therefore everything digital needs to be accessible.
It would not be overstating it to say that by 2015 access to digital information will be considered a basic human right.
What is the impact of laws, legislation and standards?
Legislation existed in many countries relating to disability, including the UK Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the the US Rehabilitation Act 1973 (and in particular Section 508 1998). These laws were either limited in relation to ICT or only relevant to government, they also seemed to lack teeth. They did not have a major impact on the accessibility of most ICT systems.
The W3C developed guidelines for web accessibility—the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) 1999.
The British Standards Institute (BSI) published PAS 78: Guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites in 2006.
At this time it was not clear if the legislation applied to ICT and, if it did, whether it only applied to specific parts of ICT: did it apply to websites, did it just apply to public sector organisations?
Because of this confusion the guidelines and guides were not enforced by legislation. This meant that most webmasters and their organisations were either unaware of them or ignored them.
In the last year, or two, case law has made it clear that all areas of ICT are covered. Probably the most publicised example is the case against Target (a large US retail chain). An individual sued Target because its web site was not accessible and therefore he was getting a poorer service than members of the able-bodied community. It took a least two years to go through the courts. In the end it was agreed that the website had to be accessible, Target had to pay out compensation to the individual and also to a group who took out a class action, and Target had to fix the site within a given timescale. The total cost came to more that $10M.
There is still a lack of awareness amongst many business decision-makers and plaintiffs are still put off pursuing claims because of the effort involved and potentially small returns.
In 2010 eBay announced changes to their systems to support users of screen readers. There were good moral and financial reasons for implementing the changes, but it can be assumed that the possibility of legal action also encouraged their implementation.
There are still cases going through courts, for example Donna Jodhan v the Canadian Government. The number of cases going to court is likely to decrease as organisations cry 'mea culpa' rather than spend money on legal support for a case they are likely to loose.
In 2010 several acts are going through the US Senate, Mandate 376 Phase 2 is progressing through the EU, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been ratified by most member states, rules and regulations are being passed through many other governments. All of these will have had a major impact by 2015.
By 2015 legislation across the world should be clear and have sufficient teeth so that it cannot be ignored. As it cannot be ignored, any relevant person (manager, procurer, technician, user) will be aware of the legislation and the importance of accessibility.
Are decision makers aware of the requirements and benefits?
ICT systems will only be fully accessible if accessibility is built in during all phases of implementation. This will happen if the decision makers dictate that it should. Ideally the edict should come from top management but it could be at the level of procurement or a highly motivated development manager.
By 2005 most decision makers were aware of the need to provide physical access to people with disabilities, most obviously users of wheelchairs. This was certainly true in the UK and North America but may not have been so common in some other parts of Europe and the World. The decision makers were aware because the laws were clear and because the problem was easy to understand: a client in a wheelchair at the bottom of a flight of stairs leading to their building was not a photo-call that a CEO wanted to deal with.
The same could not be said about ICT accessibility. Firstly the law was not clear and had not been tested. But also the issue was not so easy to understand or even be aware of. If the issue was raised the initial reaction was "how can blind people use computers" not "what has to be done to our systems to make them easy to use by people who are blind?".
The users were only beginning to push for ICT accessibility because access to ICT was less important and because alternative formats such as braille and large print were the main requirement.
Today the situation is not so different to 2005, with most decision makers still not being aware of the need for accessible ICT. The biggest improvement has been in the public sector where legislation has made the requirement clear. In the US, Section 508 makes it mandatory for government organisations and in the UK the push to e-government and the Disability Equality Duty have raised the awareness significantly.
The commercial sector is only just beginning to understand and be aware through court cases such as Target and by major organisations, most recently eBay, realising the importance of accessibility and going public with the changes they have made and the benefits to their clients and to their organisations.
The decision makers are also becoming more aware because of the noise being generated by disabled users. People are complaining when systems are not accessible and these complaints are beginning to percolate up to those who can instigate the changes.
By 2015 most decision makers will be aware of the need for accessible ICT, this greater awareness will be driven by:
- Legislation will have been extended, given more power and written to explicit include ICT.
- Disabled Users will become more vocal.
- The ageing population will include users who expect to be able to access digital information and who will not accept that age related illnesses have removed that ability.
- The economic imperative to move towards digital information will highlight the need to make that information available to all.
The only question is, will this increased awareness always ensure that the systems are made accessible? There will still be a conflict between using the latest whizzy technology and the need to ensure accessibility.
Do the various professionals have the implementation skills?
Even if the decision makers decided that all ICT systems should be accessible it would not be possible if the professionals who were implementing it lacked the necessary skills. The professionals include the designers, coders, content creators, and testers.
A small cohort of dedicated professionals were available to implement accessible systems, but they were the exception. Most professionals knew nothing about accessibility and were not interested in finding out. Professional education ignored accessibility with tutors not understanding why it should be included.
In 2010 the number of skilled professionals has grown significantly but is still a small minority of those involved in implementing and developing ICT. If there was a sudden drive to improve the accessibility of ICT then skills would become a real issue.
The only way to know if an system is accessible is to test it. Testing needs to be done throughout the project and should use automated checking tools and user testing. There are an increasing number of professional testers who have the necessary skills to run the automated and user tests.
There are some good signs in the education field:
- Accessibility and user-centred design are now included as modules in many ICT courses, but they still tend to be add-ons delivered quite late in the schedule. Accessibility is still not built-in as an inherent part of implementation.
- The BCS is reviewing accessibility across the whole of the organisation. One aspect is to look at the inclusion of accessibility in SFIAPlus, the IT skills, training and development standard. Inclusion of accessibility in the right places in SFIAPlus will have a significant long term impact on the development of accessibility skills.
- Middlesex University now offers a MSc in Digital Inclusion.
This trend in education should ensure that accessibility becomes business as usual in the next few years.
By 2015 skilled implementers should be available and should be willing to keep their skills honed because of demands for such skills from aware decision-makers.
Technology—Will Assistive Technology keep up?
There are two areas of technology that need to be considered:
- Assistive Technology: covers hardware and software that helps people who cannot see the screen well, or find it difficult to use a standard keyboard or mouse.
- The interface between the system and the user: drives screens, keyboards and pointing devices directly and needs to be accessible to the widest possible population, but it also needs to communicate with Assistive Technologies so that users of these technologies can access all the functions of the system.
Speech recognition and text to speech were both available but without being too disparaging they were both fairly clunky and were only used by those who had no option. If you were blind, text-to-speech was the main way you could get access to digital information. If you could not use a keyboard, voice recognition software did enable you to input text and control the computer.
Predictive text was originally developed as an Assistive Technology, users who could only type very slowly only had to type a few letters rather than a whole word or phrase.
There were a variety of alternatives to the standard mouse, ranging from bigger mice, to rollerballs, through to controlling the mouse through winking an eye.
The increase in processing power and significant advances in the software now mean that solutions that were clunky in 2005 are now so good that they are being used by people without any disability as they become a natural and efficient way to interact with ICT. This has led to some assistive technologies being built in to standard products. Examples include Voiceover text-to-speech on Apple products, and voice control in new cars; saying 'call home' whilst driving is much easier and safer than fiddling with any buttons.
Built-in touch technology has provided solutions for many people, for example those suffering from rheumatism or RSI, who cannot use a standard mouse.
Other alternatives to standard keyboards and mice are available but due to limited demand they are expensive.
There will be new forms of AT, direct brain connections, wearable devices that will enable certain people to more easily control and access their ICT environment.
There will be a continuing improvement in the power available to AT: for example text to speech today tends to be fairly flat, with more power it will be possible to include emotions and clearer pronunciation and intonation.
Technology—Will the User Interface be accessible?
In 2005 most of the input and output was text and that meant that it was fairly easy for the Assistive Technologies to interact. Some ancillary technologies were causing problems; probably the biggest examples were Flash and PDF, which did not always interface well to the Assistive Technologies.
There were also some web development tools that produced HTML that did not follow the W3C guidelines and was, by definition, not fully accessible. In fact it was difficult to find a tool that made it easy to produce accessible HTML
Significant strides have been made since 2005. Most development tools can now produce websites that are accessible, the issue now is that it is still up to the creator to use the tools in the right way as the tools give very little assistance or guidance on how to create accessible sites. Adobe now provides PDF and Flash products that can be made accessible and has worked with the Assistive Technology vendors to ensure that the interface works.
Unfortunately there are other new technologies that have been developed that are not accessible, for example the standard YouTube screens are not accessible; so if YouTube clips are included in a website the site is not fully accessible to users of screen readers or users who cannot use a mouse. However YouTube now supports closed captioning to support people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Developers of other widgets have not been aware of the accessibility issues and have created solutions that are not accessible.
Vendors are recognising the need for solutions in specific niches, for example Xenos Axxess is a tool to create accessible transaction reports (e.g. bank statements) from non-accessible print streams.
It is impossible to predict all the new user interfaces that will be used in five years time but 3D, interactive gestures and emotions will be three areas that will be commonplace. Emotions will be supported with the Emotion Markup Language (EML) that is currently being developed by the W3C. The EML will be added to text and then a text-to-speech engine will be able to vocalise the text with the right intonation or an avatar could make a suitable gesture or facial expression. The question with all of these interfaces is will the system be able to interface to the user, directly or via a suitable Assistive Technology, so that it is accessible?
New and exciting interfaces will always be attractive to the marketing departments, as a way of being ahead of the competition. It will be an uphill struggle to stop them being used if they are not accessible.
The likelihood is that new interfaces will be developed to include accessibility features built-in, however there will be a need for continuous vigilance by the accessibility community to ensure that this is the case. The community will have to recognise the new interfaces early and put pressure on the developers, standards bodies and users of the technology to ensure that it is accessible from first delivery.
- Accessibility will not be optional: everyone who provides digital content, services or products will need to make sure that they are accessible.
- There will be moral, legal and financial imperatives for this to happen. In particular there will pressure from users to be on the right side of the digital divide as a human right.
- Awareness will be much higher both at the user and the supplier end.
- Skill levels will have increased and should be sufficient for the demand.
- New user interface technologies will need to be accessible. Ensuring this happens will be the major challenge to the accessibility community.