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Research – Accessibility: ‘Just The Right Thing To Do’

Article by Peter Abrahams.

In the past year or two it has been possible to detect heightened awareness of the need for accessibility of ICT products and services. This has partly been brought about by court cases such as that filed against Target.com in the US, where the National Federation of the Blind claimed that the company’s website was inaccessible and violated disability legislation ( http://www.headstar.com/eablive/?p=206 ).

Other factors increasing awareness of accessibility issues include new standards such as the updated Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0; increased pressure from governments to make e-government services accessible to all; and the ongoing ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (
http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml ).

These drivers are complemented by the realisation that in the sluggish depths of the current economic slowdown, organisations need to reach out to as wide a customer base as possible. Two ways of doing this are to improve your brand image by being seen to take your social responsibilities seriously; and to make your products and services reach out to a wider audience by including the specific needs of groups such as the young, the old, the underprivileged, those with disabilities, and the cash-rich but time-poor.

In this light, accessibility is one significant part of a larger drive that comes under the title of inclusivity or design for all. If ICT systems are going to be available to the widest possible audience, then this must include making them accessible to people with disabilities.

It is also the case that the process of designing for people with disabilities will highlight requirements that will help a much wider audience. For example, ease of navigation of a web site is essential to a person using a screen-reader or a dictation system, but the extra care put into the structure of the site to benefit this group will benefit other groups such as those who have not used computers before or those who have time pressures.

With all these factors in mind, Bloor Research’s Accessibility Practice, in conjunction with E-Access Bulletin’s publisher Headstar and Ability Magazine, have just completed a survey of attitudes to ICT accessibility.

The survey investigated the current and planned status of organisations’ ICT systems and identified the drivers for accessibility; the barriers that were slowing down the implementation of accessible systems; and the actions that need to be taken by the industry to remove these barriers.

The survey, which questioned organisations from both the public and private sector, shows that the level of commitment to accessibility across organisations varies dramatically, with the bottom fifth of respondents showing little interest in or future plans for accessibility. In general, the public sector was found to be more committed to accessibility and had plans to improve further. This is not surprising, as ‘Section 508’ accessibility legislation in the US and the Disability Equality Duty in the UK are aimed at the public sector’s procurement of ICT. Furthermore, the public sector has a general duty to serve all the population and to be inclusive, whereas the private sector does not see accessibility as a duty.

Survey respondents were asked to state what they saw as the major drivers for accessibility within their organisations. Meeting legal requirements and enhancing corporate social responsibility were both rated strong or very strong drivers by 70% of the respondents, whereas only about 15% rated increased revenue or reduced cost as a driver. This suggests that further research is needed into the creation of business cases for accessibility.

The survey also asked for other suggestions for reasons or factors that might encourage accessibility. Among common themes emerging from this included that: “It is just the right thing to do”, and that organisations should “lead by example”. However, more pragmatic reasons also appeared, such as “makes test automation easier”, and “improves search engine optimisation”.

The survey then asked about barriers to implementation of accessibility. In response to this, ‘legacy systems not being accessible’ and ‘lack of budget’ were each cited by 40% of respondents as strong or very strong barriers. This suggests that providing tools for improving the accessibility of legacy systems could be an interesting business opportunity. Surprisingly, less than a quarter quoted lack of understanding or inadequacy of tools as a barrier.

Finally, the survey asked an open question: “Suggest one improvement to accessibility support”; a question also asked at Headstar’s recent e-Access 09 conference (
http://www.headstar-events.com/eaccess09/ ).
Both conference and survey prompted many interesting suggestions, with one of the main themes being a need to increase awareness of the issues, barriers and benefits of accessibility across all the stakeholders (which includes users, procuring departments, and IT at all levels within an organisation). A quoted example of this problem involved a government department which was promoting accessible ICT to local businesses, while at the same time another department was promoting a non-accessible solution to the same businesses.

Other suggestions for accessibility support included better testing tools which are easier to use, and products that were accessible out-of-the-box.

The full results of the survey will be published on the Bloor website ( http://www.bloorresearch.com/ )
in early July.

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