By Robin Christopherson
Recent research shows that the great majority of websites are still failing consistently to comply with even the lowest priority checkpoints of the accessibility guidelines set out by the international web standards body the World Wide Web Consortium. Despite a plethora of initiatives to raise awareness of this issue, from Citizens Online’s ‘Fix the Web’ campaign to Global Accessibility Awareness Day, the situation does not seem to be improving at a significant rate.
Little wonder, therefore, that one in six of us is still reluctant to venture into the online world and not surprising either that around half of those on the wrong side of the digital divide are disabled, and a similar number are aged 65 or over. The scope for mainstream technologies to transform the lives of this sizeable minority seems largely untapped.
It is ironic that in this divided digital economy, the UK public sector – both local and central government – is now heavily promoting the elusive ‘channel shift’ – a switch from dealing with citizens by phone, post or face-to-face, to digital channels. This, we are told, is the holy grail of efficient modern public services.
But the truth is that in this same new digital world, some eight million UK citizens without full access to the online environment due to age, disability or economic situation could become progressively disenfranchised, economically, socially and even politically.
But there is a glimmer of hope. Just in time, it appears that technology has an emergent property – that of inclusivity. Mainstream devices are actually getting increasingly user-friendly for disabled and older people as design becomes more inclusive for all of us. And prices are dropping too as these products become more ubiquitous
In the past, disabled people became accustomed to living in a ‘ghetto’ of specialist, bespoke products with prohibitive price tags that few could afford. But all of that specialist functionality and much, much more can now be supplied for a fraction of the cost by smartphones or tablets, using mass market applications and not expensively produced bespoke software. With the addition of inexpensive peripherals such as Bluetooth keyboards or switching devices, almost anyone’s needs can be served.
The trick is to know how to make the necessary adjustments in their operating systems and functions to make them more disability friendly and accommodate your own specific requirements.
AbilityNet’s contribution to solving this problem is “My Computer, My Way”, an online resource to which any website can link for free. It’s already embedded in various high profile sites such as Samsung, Barclays, Sky and NHS Choices, and now the charity has set itself the target of ensuring one million websites are linked to the tool.
Designed to help those who struggle at the digital interface (with a vision or hearing impairment, difficulties in operating keyboard and mouse; or simply reading and spelling), a link to My Computer My Way from a website’s accessibility page helps to equip users with the information they need to optimise their experience.
And you don’t have to be disabled to find this tool valuable. Have you tried to use your tablet device in strong sunlight? Wouldn’t it be easier to see what’s on the screen if you knew how to adjust the brightness?
It explains the accessibility features of many operating systems across a wide range of devices including Mac and PC desktops, tablets and smartphones. It now includes details of current desktop versions of Windows and Mac OS X, as well as newly launched versions of Android and iOS. The next version is due out by Christmas 2013 to explain what’s new in Android 4.3 Jellybean and iOS7.
Not only does this mean that end-users will be able to navigate online content more effectively, it also increases the legal compliance of any site as it shows a real commitment to accessibility and digital inclusion.
At AbilityNet we believe that communicating simple messages about accessibility is the most effective way to raise awareness and behaviour. It’s a slow process, but an incremental one, and we remain hopeful that significant progress can be made.
NOTE: Robin Christopherson is Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet.