Building in Digital Accessibility - With an Ontario Example



June 13, 2017

Originally posted on LinkedIN in two parts.

Building Digital Inclusion into Organizations

A friend using his eye-tracking softwareThere are an increasing number of organizations that are looking to make their organizations more inclusive to People with Disabilities (PwD). Some organizations do this because they are seeking talent, others because of ethics and still others because it is the law. There are lots of little steps that any organization could do to include more people with disabilities. This is a description of an approach for an organization that wanted to demonstrate leadership.

Accessibility is a big field and although the physical environment is critical for some PwD, it isn’t an area I have any specific expertise, so instead I will focus on Digital Accessibility. I absolutely am an advocate for elevators, wide doors and spacious bathrooms, but also realize that the decision making opportunities around an office building doesn't happen very often and that many organizations don’t own their buildings. Retrofitting is sometimes possible, but usually very expensive.

When you are making a decision to buy or rent something, it is at that point when your priorities for your organization shine through. With office space, you often have to choose between a building that meets today’s accessibility best practices or the one that fits the needs of hundreds of other criterion.

Usually decisions around Information Communications Technology (ICT) are much smaller than an organization’s location, however we generally make these decisions much more often. If we are not thinking about actively reducing barriers, we are probably adding them. If you are lucky, there might be accessibility workarounds that you can implement that will allow you to accommodate PwD.

Most digital tools change quite rapidly. Where as you would hope to get at least 5 years out of a lease, it is the most you can expect to get out of your web site. So by focusing on procurement with a Digital Accessibility Action Plan, you will be able to make a lot of significant changes. In this article I hope to lay the groundwork digitally for that effort.

ICT should be the great enabler. As the saying goes, “On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog”, but as it is now 10-20% of the population is excluded because of barriers on the web. Ultimately we want to see that digital technology isn’t a barrier to PwD becoming engaged with our organizations. Unfortunately, it is. Often, you don’t need to go any further than an organization’s home page to see huge accessibility problems, let alone the hiring portal.

Accessibility is usually overlooked in organizations because it isn’t baked into their culture.

Here are some things that will help you lay the groundwork:

  1. Build an Accessibility Plan which covers all digital platforms - start with the web but don’t end there
  2. Appoint a Web Accessibility Coordinator or better yet an Accessibility Team - there is a lot to keep track of
  3. Ensure that staff that create content get training on accessibility - see that the training is built into new staff orientations
  4. Add accessibility to performance evaluations - at least for employees who create content
  5. Create an accessibility policy - people need to know the organization's expectations
  6. Make Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA the standard - and find ways to investigate implementing Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0 in your publishing workflow
  7. Make sure you are considering accessibility in all of your procurement - a great many salespeople will tell you a product “is accessible” when it isn’t
  8. Have the resources to identify & resolve accessibility problems when they are discovered - it is a journey, not a destination
  9. Do regular reviews of the accessibility of your digital platforms - create metrics about your errors to keep track of your progress
  10. Learn how to use easy automated testing tools and basic manual ones - anyone with responsibility for content should be able to do this

Now this will probably be sufficient to see that you aren't going to be sued. It can be clearly demonstrated that you are making a serious effort to address accessibility if you were challenged. However it wouldn’t necessarily demonstrate leadership in this field. To be a leader, an organization would need to start hiring PwD and seeing that there are opportunities at all levels.

Many PwD may not even apply for positions without making more visible changes:

  1. Ensure that you regularly test your site with PwD - engaging with communities with disabilities matters
  2. Make sure that PwD can both create and consume digital content - hire a company that employs PwD for testing
  3. Make sure that you welcome feedback from people with disabilities about ways to further improve the site - know your users
  4. Focus on intention and improving the journey rather than just meeting the “requirements” - Culture eats policy for breakfast
  5. Be vocal about your efforts to improve your accessibility - people should know that this is important to your organization 
  6. Share what you have learned about being a more inclusive organization with others - there is a lot to learn and your code, policies and stories can help make it easier for others!

There are many basic ways you can also convey this to PwD. You might want to add some of these elements to your website as it will be the first stop for most people who want to learn more about opportunities with you. Ask your web team about:

  • Adding a link to an accessibility information page at the bottom of your website - see that this page outlines efforts to make accessing content easier for people with disabilities
  • Ensuring that there is a well styled skip-link feature at the top of every web page - for keyboard only users
  • Seeing that there is strong focus for keyboard navigation elements - especially useful for sighted keyboard only users
  • Adding meaningful alt text (or descriptions of images) in all digital content, including social media

This is a highlight of some things that organizations can do to raise the bar on Digital Accessibility. There are a great many other things that can be done, but I’m hoping that these 20 points can encourage people to think more broadly about their options.

Accessibility Maturity Model (AMM)

This type of thinking isn’t particularly new, but it also isn’t very common. The Business Disability Forum in the UK developed a Accessibility Maturity Model (AMM) to help organizations measure & track their organization’s progress over time. This type of committed long term commitment to improving accessibility is important for organizations who want to ensure that they continue to improve.

Young face in the rock. Trail Blazing with the Ontario Government

I am encouraged by efforts by the Ontario Government to make this province accessible by 2025. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) did set some ambitious goals. Unfortunately, I think that they are still missing the mark if we are going to get anywhere close to this in 8 years.

The Honourable Tracy MacCharles put forward a strategy to help people with disabilities find employment called Access Talent. It is clear that they want to encourage Ontario organizations to join with them on a join employment strategy for PwD. This is terrific, but unfortunately their wordy document misses a lot of the basic points which I included above.

It’s fine to challenge every “Ontario employer with 20 or more employees to hire at least one more person with a disability.” but this isn’t enough to actually see that 56,000 PwD would get jobs. This report is filled with lots of feel-good quotes and solid myth-busting but at the end of the day most job portals are filled with accessibility barriers.

If an organization ends up hiring a person with a disability the Accessible workplaces guide by the Ontario Government does very little to help organizations how to be proactive and see that they actually are able manage the transition to fully support staff with disabilities.

There are going to be cases that require individual accommodation, but there are steps that can be taken before hiring anyone which would help lay the groundwork for a more inclusive workforce.

If the Government of Ontario is going to be a trailblazer there is a lot more that they can do.

  1. Is there a template for an Accessibility Plan which covers all digital platforms that you can share?
  2. Where have you adopted Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0 in your publishing workflow?
  3. Is accessibility part of staff performance evaluations?
  4. How have you addressed accessibility in your procurement process? Do you evaluate contracts with 3rd party audits to verify that the goals are met?
  5. Are reports of numbers and types of accessibility errors collected and published?
  6. How have you incorporated automated and manual testing into your review process? Are you developing tools that can be shared with other organizations?
  7. Is the Ontario government fixing accessibility problems upstream in the software libraries that they use (Drupal, jQuery, Bootstrap, etc)?
  8. Can you share what you learned about supporting a more diverse team.
  9. Do you have a list of tools that you have published that you would recommend for accessibility?
  10. Is there a central issue queue for accessibility issues that people can use to see when problems with digital communications with the government?

These aren't the only way to be a trailblazer in accessibility, but public education and outreach only goes so far. Ultimately people need more tangible information for them to take that next step into the unknown.

Two Specific Asks of the Ontario Government

  1. It is great that there will be efforts for ministries to contract with vendors that employ under-represented groups, including people with disabilities. There isn’t really a business association that addresses this exact need. It is worth noting that Certified B Corporations (B Corp) probably come the closest. Will we see the Ontario Government add a preference for B Corp in their procurement process?
  1. The Content Management System (CMS) Drupal has been widely used in the Ontario Government, but as yet there has been nothing to highlight any of it’s advantages. Drupal 8 is the most accessible enterprise CMS available, and it would be great if the province was able to promote options like this. Will the Ontario Government talk about it’s implementations of Drupal 7 and how this open-source tool has benefited the government?

About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.

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