OZeWAI accessibility bites

  • Author: Alex Varley
  • Date: 27 Nov 2015

Media Access Australia's CEO Alex Varley attended the second day of the annual OZeWAI conference, held in Canberra on 25-27 November. The conference targets mainly accessibility professionals and Alex shares his insights and highlights from a full program.

Government agencies rely on provided solutions

Ross Mullen from the federal government's Shared Services Centre gave an interesting critique of the state of play of government websites. He noted that in reality the government is predominantly a Microsoft environment and not really open source, which is an aspiration rather than reality. Mullen also differentiated the approaches being taken between static content sites and applications. He observed that the new Gov CMS was the preferred platform for static content and that this was supposed to be accessible out of the box. For applications, many departments assume that accessibility statements from vendors are correct and that procurement people relied on accessibility "ticks” to meet that need.

This theme was picked up in a panel discussion with Adem Cifcioglu, Jason Kiss and Meera Pankhania. The messages from this were that the real person who needed to be targeted is the business owner of the project and that if you didn’t get what you needed, you shouldn't pay. Adam said that this can take years to build up proper relationships. Meera said that the UK market was more mature and that one way to gain funding for accessibility was to target it as part of the marketing/user profile budget, which is usually bigger. Jason agreed that you need better contractual arrangements and this might include third party testing. Some audience comments suggested building in a proper vendor test for procurement.

A key take out from this was to remove the developer attitude that “accessibility is an enhancement”, rather than it being a standard component of normal development.

Universities need to chip away at the issues and not worry too much about the scale of the problem                                   

A more factual presentation and a good indication of how to approach accessibility in a large organisation came from Andrew Normand at University of Melbourne. His attitude that the university sector turning over $26 billion had no room for “unjustifiable hardship” excuses and his approach is very much looking at the interaction between meeting disabled student needs and the sheer scale of a large university, with around one million public-facing web pages.

Andrew has taken the basic needs, around access to information about courses, access to courses and access to systems and extra-curricular activity and mapped that against what needs to be made digitally accessible. That then creates a framework for tackling the accessibility a bit at a time. He noted that the universities move slowly, but the upside is that once you fix something it stays like that for a long time. An observation was that IT departments will not give accessibility priority as in the risk profile for IT, issues such as system outages and administration issues use up their time. Administration needs clearly take precedence over user needs, so it needs to be driven from elsewhere and worked on steadily.

The key take out from Andrew was an observation that whilst services can be outsourced, the ultimate responsibility for the outcomes of that service cannot.

The move towards fully digital working environments creates challenges

Vivienne Conway provided a good presentation on the range of issues in creating accessible documents and the perennial discussion about Word, PDFs, InDesign and HTML. She also picked up on new approaches to complex tasks, such as providing meaningful alt text for graphs through solutions like evoGraphs that help screen readers to interpret complex graphs.

An interesting issue around the practical production of digital documents was highlighted by Adelphi Digital. In an environment where more complex elements, such as “revealed animations”, are provided to make reports more interesting, how do you deal with accessibility? Similarly, the process of creating a report digitally without paper versions can cause accessibility roadblocks as new creative ideas are formed as part of the process and throw away old versions that were being developed with accessibility as they went along.

Messages from the Digital Transformation Office

A much anticipated presentation was from Jacqui van Teulingen from the DTO on what its approach to accessibility is and how that works within the landscape of government websites and applications.

A key message is that the user is central to everything and the DTO is focussing on user experience and getting started. By using an agile environment it wants to be providing solutions in a few months, not a few years and have the ability to fix issues as they occur, including once the service is live.

The Digital Service Standards is a living document that will change and it incorporates the old web guides and other key information about how accessibility works in practice. There was an acknowledgement that the approach still needs to be locked down in policy terms and this was likely in the first half of 2016. Feedback from the accessibility industry is also being canvassed to ensure that it covers issues in a practical way. This led to discussion around practical issues, such as do departments make current PDFs accessible or do they have to migrate to HTML? Van Teulingen noted that this was a policy approach that is being discussed and will be resolved next year. Others asked about the involvement of state governments (like the approach that was taken under the old National Transition Strategy). Some are closely involved in the discussions and looking at the DTO’s systems and standards as being potential good approaches. However, ultimately it is up to the states to decide for themselves.

My take is that the DTO’s approach is exciting and has the potential to transform government service delivery and provide better accessibility as part of that process. However, it is too early to see whether the agile, collaborative approach will be embraced and reflected in the policy approaches coming up behind it. It may provide another version of the mixed results of the NTS with some stepping up and others hiding behind some process that is always in a state of “improving but not quite ever delivering”.          

Conference presentations