The government and groups representing disabled employees are making renewed efforts to persuade CIOs to commission websites and in-house systems that can be accessed by people who have difficulty using off-the-peg technology.
Organisations that use IT are among the targets of a series of initiatives aimed at making digital systems more inclusive.
There are eight million disabled people in the UK, according to charity the Shaw Trust, many of whom cannot read documents, surf the web, make a phone call or use a keyboard without adjusting their systems or plugging in assistive software and hardware.
Disability takes many forms and covers a wide range of impairments. Some people have sensory disabilities covering difficulties with sight, hearing and speech. Others are physically disabled and have problems with mobility.
A large group suffers from cognitive impairments that include dyslexia and learning difficulties. And there are those who struggle with the debilitating effects of diseases such as depression, arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
In many offices there is another increasingly vocal group of people who experience discomfort using IT — those who suffer from repetitive strain injury (RSI), as a result of excessive use of a mouse or keyboard or from sitting incorrectly at a desk.
Despite legislation such as the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) which requires organisations to make their IT accessible, up to 96 per cent of websites do not meet minimum accessibility standards, according to accessibility charity AbilityNet.
The DDA specifically requires firms to make reasonable adjustments to their sites to accommodate disabled people and yet not one case has come to court in the UK.
The impact of not being able to access electronic content is highlighted by blind historian Paul Jarman who complained on an academic forum that his screen reader software cannot read out the digitised images of books that are increasingly only available to him online and electronically.
“Visually-impaired academics are many times worse off than they were 10 years ago,” he says. “And the major digitisation projects of the future – such as the British Library’s project to digitise all British newspapers — are slowly ensuring that the final nails are being hammered into the coffin.”
Campaigners argue that organisations that fail to make their IT accessible are not only cutting themselves off from a valuable pool of potential customers and employees, but are also failing in their social and legal responsibilities.
Accessibility, they say, is good for everyone, not just disabled people, because the discipline it enforces makes content and systems simpler and easier to use. In any case the numbers of disabled people is going up as the online population ages.
So what is the problem? Awareness is one hold-up. Those who buy IT don’t know that they should be asking for accessibility. “Those responsible for procurement I have spoken to are unaware of the accessibility features that have been developed by companies such as Microsoft, IBM and Apple,” says Maryrose Brennan of the Employers’ Forum on Disability.
The Employers’ Forum, which runs the Business Taskforce for Accessible Technology on behalf of its 400 company members, is preparing guidelines for procurement managers that will help them specify accessible IT and ensure that suppliers have provided what their customers asked for.
Making IT more inclusive is not just a matter of telling CIOs about the needs of their disabled employees and customers. Organisations are often put off by the perceived cost and complexity of assistive technology. It can be expensive to retrofit accessibility — reformatting tens of thousands of web pages, for example — but there is much less additional cost if accessibility is built in at the system design stage.
Many mainstream IT products now come with features such as voice output, voice recognition and the ability to change the size and appearance of screen displays as standard. However, these features are not always well publicised and the ability to personalise a workstation is sometimes overridden by security procedures that restrict a user’s ability to choose different displays or access assistive software.
Accessibility advocates are beginning to make their voices heard. Recent moves to raise awareness include the publication of a report by a blue chip coalition of users, vendors and charities called OneVoice for Accessible ICT. The report, entitled Accessible ICT — Benefits to Business and Society, puts the business case for inclusive technology.
“Investing in accessible and usable technology products and services, workplace environments and facilities, opens up new markets, increases productivity and liberates talent,” writes Barclays CEO John Varley in a foreword to the report.
The report contains case studies, statistics and bullet points aimed at persuading senior managers to take accessibility seriously. It includes a chart, known as the IT accessibility maturity model, which helps managers work out how good a job they are doing at making their IT accessible.
OneVoice, which numbers HMRC, BA and Lloyds Banking Group among its members, calls on firms to appoint an accessibility champion to ensure they have an up-to-date action plan and to make regular progress reports to the board.
The government sees accessibility as a key plank in its efforts to get more citizens online. Dotcom entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox is spearheading Digital Britain, a campaign to boost the online economy.
She has already ruffled feathers by calling on the government to “close down publicly funded websites that consistently fail to meet its own web accessibility guidelines”.
Ed Vaizey, minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries is looking into the implications of such a move, and all government websites must comply with accessibility standards by March 2011.
As part of the Digital Britain campaign, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has set up an e-Accessibility Forum with a three-point programme.
The Forum will begin by helping to transfer a European Directive on Communications Networks Services into UK law by May this year. The directive obliges member states to ensure disabled end-users have equivalent access and choice of communication services.
The Forum is also producing an e-Accessibility action plan with five workstreams. Apart from updating the legal framework, the plan will focus on the affordability and availability of assistive technologies, how to improve website services, making broadcast content more accessible and promoting awareness of e-accessibility.
“Too many people are currently excluded,” Vaizey told delegates at the e-Access conference. “I want to see that change. The government will make sure that we have a clear and supportive regulatory framework that legislates where necessary.
“But legislation can be a blunt instrument. I challenge you to develop new ways of making it easy for those with disabilities to be productive employees, confident consumers and engaged citizens.
“Getting the e-Access question right will ensure that the UK is one of the most competitive, highly skilled and technologically advanced economies in the world. And UK businesses will be able to draw on a larger workforce whose skills it would not otherwise have had access to.”
Organisations involved with IT are responding. The BCS — The Chartered Institute for IT, which as the British Computer Society set up the IT charities AbilityNet and IT Can Help in the eighties, has made accessibility a key issue. The organisation not only plans to use its influence to move the topic higher up the public agenda but is making its own products and services more accessible.
“Our vision is that everyone, whatever their capability, should be able to sit in front of any screen and be confident that they can access all available services,” says BCS president Elizabeth Sparrow.
Clear advice on how to achieve accessibility should also become more readily available. The British Standards Institution is developing guidelines for those who commission websites.
The BS 8878 standard, which was published in December 2010, covers all stages of the web production process from initial requirements gathering, through selection of technologies and platforms to testing, launch and subsequent maintenance. It is intended as a companion to existing, more technical documentation, such as version 2.0 of the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
The standard covers not only websites but also online products such as software applications delivered over the web. BS 8878 recommends that each web product should have its own accessibility policy overseen by someone in the organisation who has responsibility for compliance.
“Technical monitoring against standards is important, but it’s only by talking to real people that you can understand what matters to them and what doesn’t, and that blind adherence to technical standards is not the most important thing,” warns Nick Gassman, usability and standards manager at British Airways.
Users have to be vigilant to avoid commissioning inaccessible systems. Lloyds Banking Group had to rethink a plan to replace 50,000 analogue phone handsets when it became apparent the IP telephony handsets under consideration could not be used by blind or hard of hearing users.
Public sector users have the most thorough approach to accessibility, partly because they are bound by a Disability Equality Duty that requires them by law to take account of disabled citizens.
HMRC is determined that all its 85,000 employees, 12,000 of whom are disabled, are able to access its internal IT systems. The department’s strict accessibility standards require that all new website content, products and applications meet the —requirements of the DDA and adhere to internationally accepted standards.
Steve Lamey, director general of HMRC and a former CIO has been working with technology suppliers to improve accessibility. “In 10 years’ time it should be possible for anyone to sit down at an IT system and be able to use it. I think it will become so mainstream,” he says.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) not only oversees the DDA, but is also another large employer of disabled people. The organisation has over 6000 registered users of assistive IT.
Accessibility is written into the DWP’s contract with outsourcer Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Systems (HPES). One of the key objectives of the agreement is to ensure disabled users get better service.
The agreement calls for HPES to provide assessments, maintain a catalogue of assistive technology, conduct regular reviews of the systems offered to disabled users and provide equipment within five days of it being ordered.
It is easy to overlook people with disabilities: not only are they under-represented in the workforce, but they often keep quiet about any difficulties they have for fear of losing out on promotion. Perhaps the latest awareness drive will mean their IT needs are more likely to be met.
Checklist: Eight steps to IT accessibility
– Draw up an accessibility policy.
– Devise an accessibility checklist that enables IT service people and developers to identify important access issues when delivering services and designing new products and services.
– Appoint someone to act as an accessibility champion.
– Ensure that people with disabilities know about and have access to appropriate assessments.
– Involve disabled people in all design activities, starting at the concept stage and going on through all phases of development.
– Have a procurement policy that specifies accessibility as a requirement in all hardware, software, networking and systems an organisation buys.
– Hire disabled people – developers will understand the issues much better through personal experience.
– Work with colleagues to communicate the policy to staff.
Source: Accessible Technology: A Guide for IT Professionals, published by the British Computer Society
John Lamb is editor of Ability magazine