Engagement and inclusion: the accessibility sweet spot

  • Author: Amajjika Kumara
  • Date: 16 Jan 2013

With Ann Steward resigning as the Australian Government Chief Information Officer (CIO) in December and discussions that many government departments are behind in their progress towards accessibility compliance, you have to wonder what the real state of affairs in the land of the National Transition Strategy is?

Delib Australia Managing Director Craig Thomler has suggested that there is an opportunity "…for Australia to follow the bold leadership of other nations to mandate a more powerful and central role for the Government CIO than was previously the case. A role that allows the CIO to mandate and enforce standards on agencies, rather than simply providing advice and support which can be ignored."

This seems to be the ultimate sticking point: a lack of enforceable mandates and consequences for non-compliance. The problem stems from the way people are viewing accessibility — as if it's an add-on and something done to help people with disabilities. What most managers aren't yet realising is that by adopting web accessibility as a strategic management principle, you open the doors to increased consumer satisfaction, increased revenue from product sales and/or cost savings.

Engagement is maximised through web accessibility

Viewing web accessibility in isolation and not strategically means you aren't really considering the effects that an inaccessible website or digital channel will have on your cost structure in the future.

At the same time there is a significant amount of discussion about Gov 2.0 and engagement. You absolutely cannot have engagement if you exclude people from your digital experiences — and here's why.

In order to have maximum engagement with all your customers, your digital channels must be accessible to ensure equality and inclusion. It is only when these three conditions are met: engagement, accessibility and equality that we create the engagement/inclusion sweet spot.

In Australia, these three conditions are supported by Gov 2.0 which is about consultation and engagement with stakeholders, equality which is upheld by the Disability Discrimination Act and the Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy, our government’s commitment to making digital content accessible.

The engagement/inclusion sweet spot is the intersection between these principles — in an accessible digital utopia, all three would overlap entirely so that engagement = accessible online experiences = equality: no one is left out.

Diagram showing the intersection of engagement, equality and accessibly to form the engagement/inclusion sweet spot.

These aren't just fluffy idealistic values — the intention behind maximising engagement is that your customers are getting what they need and/or want when they need it. The more this happens, the more they will choose to work with your organisation over competitors.

If they must work with you, as in the case of government departments, then satisfied customers who get what they need in their first interaction with you will cost less to service than customers who do not, and need to use additional and alternative channels of communication (that may be more costly to run). Just as you adjust your product or service offering to appeal to the needs and wants of consumers, so too should your communications channels or touchpoints cater for the differing needs of consumers.

If you don't direct your organisation or department towards the engagement/inclusion sweet spot, my opinion is that your cost estimates are more than likely to be understated to the tune of 30 per cent or more. I don't have any hard statistics to prove this, but in my experience, 30 per cent will be a minimum cost blow out for a customer switching from a "self service" channel to a "full service" channel.

Web accessibility is not just a disability issue

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), about 18 per cent of the population reported having a "disability" in the last census. I believe this figure is underestimated. Looking  Australia Demographic Statistics published in 2012 by the ABS, the there are approximately 5000 Baby Boomers turning 65 each week in Australia. I'm not sure about you, but most people with a vision or hearing impairment that I know of in that age group do not consider themselves as having a disability and would not report it as such in an official document like the census.

Yet these people would benefit from having accessible colour contrast, the ability to increase text size, and captions on videos, for example.

The key to accessing the engagement/inclusion sweet spot is understanding that a key vehicle is ensuring your digital communication channels are accessible. Web accessibility is not just a disability issue. It is a pivotal strategy for maximising engagement and reducing the unforeseen costs of not being able to service a significant portion of the population via your online channels (as you're probably hoping to do and driving customers towards that solution).

I know there are significant challenges in creating accessible digital experiences in the real world and some can be real deal breakers—but it's only a deal breaker if you're looking at accessibility with a black and white mindset (and dare I say, a checklist mentality).

Accessibility in the real world

I much prefer to think about accessibility in practice - a journey or a continuum of learning. That means some aspects of your digital experiences will be easy to make accessible, others will require more work and some might be extremely challenging. However, lateral thinking suggests that you can create an accessible alternative for certain functions where it's totally viable and cost effective for the process to take place outside the website, via another touchpoint, channel or process.

As I've discovered in the creation of Access iQ™, some parts of your journey will require you to scrap what you've done and start again. But you have to start and it is best to start with the type of projects your familiar with.

A case in point is cloud computing — it is certainly a hot topic at the moment. I've heard some people imply that it's a possible solution for accessibility. It has the potential to be, but if you don't understand the basic management principles of accessibility, and how to truly integrate the culture change, processes and technology changes into everyday thinking, you will only create more headaches for yourself by leapfrogging to the cloud for accessibility.

Making your digital communications channels accessible is the logical place to earn your accessibility stripes and experience rather than attempting it on a platform you have little experience in.

Accessible cloud solutions however may be a way off, at least for the public service. The Draft Report on Cloud Service Provider Certification Requirements for the Australian Government released in December 2012 provides recommendations on possible approaches to certification of Cloud Service Providers. An important requirement of any cloud-based solution is that the solution itself is accessible and can produce accessible content, something that has been entirely overlooked within this report.

Culture change is the first step

The first deadline of the National Transition Strategy (NTS) was about this: learning and discovery.

However, it seems many government departments have elected to leapfrog Level A compliance in favour of AA compliance in 2014. Reading between the lines, it seems many departments have fallen behind and are hoping that they can catch up in the next two years. Maybe their discovery phase needed to incorporate "how to do more with less" given the challenging environment they found themselves after significant budget cuts took place in 2012.

In a recent email exchange, a former public servant said "I banged my head in agencies about accessibility for almost six years. There's low to nil awareness at senior levels and little interest in solving accessibility issues except where the risks of being inaccessible are seen as being greater than the alternative."

Wow.

Couple this with the presentation by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) at the OZeWAI Conference 2012 that said accessibility is as much about culture change within their organisation as it is about the technical aspects of making a website accessible. We then get the picture that it's not such an easy journey from a holistic perspective.

And that's why checklist thinking just can't work on accessibility projects (especially if you're a novice).

When your web content needs to be accessible and your content team aren't using the HTML heading element because the content management system doesn't distinguish between the style of the font and the semantic structure of it, you need to educate the content writers on why they need to use the options given to them. At the same time, have your development team listen to what content authors need so they can develop suitable styles and classes within the content management system or document template so the content authors aren't tempted to stray and create their own styles that render the content inaccessible.

Everyone needs to understand that what they do has an impact on digital accessibility, so it's a lot easier if everyone is on the same page. You cannot do this if you consider web accessibility simply an ICT/web function.

Accessibility is twice as hard without executive buy-in

Referring back to my opening statements, the web accessibility journey becomes much more difficult when you don't have a body/senior executive that can enforce the mandate and impose penalties for non-compliance. If your team or organisation purports to strive for engagement but there is no one to champion it, you will only get dissention, doubt and resistance. So if you're a manager reporting to an executive team, you must get the executive to buy in and understand the strategic nature of web accessibility.

If the executive does not buy in, you'll be contributing to interdepartmental inefficiencies and bureaucracies as department's waste energy and time disagreeing with one another about why they need to change their work practices to cater for web accessibility.

As leaders of private and public organisations, the ultimate responsibility for accessibility sits with the executive team, senior managers, department heads and directors.

For government: If you don't truly own the NTS and start making it a cultural initiative in your organisation, you will not success and will create an administrative nightmare.

For business: if you don't embrace web accessibility principles, you are missing out on the disability dollar. You will also potentially experience escalating costs in your other channels of communication with customers because your online channel cannot engage/satisfy your customers.

If you've pushed the responsibility for accessibility onto some poor unsuspecting business analyst, you will not succeed and will potentially spend more money fixing problems and still end up with a non-compliant website and unsatisfied customers.

If you're relying on machine testing alone then you've already missed the boat because machine testing will only pick up about 30 per cent of accessibility errors. There are no automated tools that can tell you if the text alternative is appropriate or if your link text is meaningful.

If you're not working with a specialist accessibility consultant, unless you have a technical specialist who is as familiar with WCAG 2.0 as they are with their smartphone, then dare I say; you will have a very hard time.

"Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here's my number …"

So here's my open offer to government and corporates: I'll be travelling around Australia in the coming months with my colleague Sarah Pulis, Web Accessibility Evangelist, and we'll be happy to give you and your peers any kind of information session that you need to help your accessibility project.

"…So call me maybe?"

Just contact me via this website or on 02 9212 6242, tell me where you are, your situation and challenges, and I'll suggest some dates. If you know of any colleagues in different departments, tell them and we'd be happy to visit them too.

I work with two vision impaired and two hearing impaired colleagues, and I can tell you that it's not that hard to make your organisation or digital channels inclusive if you have the mindset for it. We don't always get it right but we do our best to fix any situation so it stays fixed (until it breaks and when that happens, we fix it again).

You cannot purport to maximise engagement and strive for equality without adopting web accessibility as a management initiative. I challenge anyone to prove otherwise. So if those two goals are on your corporate agenda and web accessibility is not, then it would be great to have a chat!