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Accessibility and Government 2.0

2009 July 12

Guest Blogger Post from Scott Hollier: Media Access Australia

Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.
Ron Mace

One major issue to face the Government 2.0 taskforce will be how to meet the needs of people with disabilities.  In my role as Project Manager for Media Access Australia and as a person with a vision impairment, I’ve been fortunate to have both a profession and personal perspective on access issues so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the topic.

The challenge here will revolve around the use of universal design in the delivery of accessible government information via Web 2.0 technologies.  While the principle sounds good, two questions need to be asked:  what is universal design, and can it realistically be achieved?

One of the easiest mistakes to make is assuming that universal design means that everything has to be approached using a ‘one size fits all’ model.    This would be very difficult, not to mention impractical to actually do.  For example, if the government decides that Facebook is a good medium for communication, should the popular website launch a text-only interface to ensure complete access?  Would this meet universal design requirements?  How would current Facebook users feel about that?

An alternative is not to see universal design as an impossible dream, but to use the concept in practical ways that make mainstream products reach the largest possible audience.  The Center for Universal Design looked across a variety of disciplines, and focused on things like equitable use, flexibility in use, emphasis on simplicity and intuitiveness, the need for perceptible information and tolerance for error.  When we think about the Facebook example, can all these concepts apply without making a text-only site?  I’d argue yes.  Will this make Facebook accessible to every Australian with one or more disabilities? Probably not, but it will get close enough that specialist solutions would be required on such a small scale that it can be provided to the remainder of the population at minimal cost.

The third option is to put it all in the ‘too hard’ basket, which is what has previously happened in Australia.  Other Federal governments around the world like the United States of America have legislation, Section 508, that requires products produced or sold to the government meet accessibility criteria.   Our equivalent legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act, has no comparable requirement.

So what do you think?  Should the government find a one-size-fits-all solution to access?  Should the focus be on making government resources as accessible as possible using mainstream technologies, or is it all just too hard?   Add your thoughts.

About Dr Scott Hollier: Scott Hollier is the Project Manager, New Media for Media Access Australia (MAA), a not-for-profit, public benevolent institution.  Scott’s work focuses on making computers and Internet-related technologies accessible to people with disabilities,  Scott also represents MAA on the Advisory Committee of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the organisation primarily responsible for developing and promoting access standards to media through technology for people with disabilities.   Scott has completed a PhD titled ‘The Disability Divide: an examination into the needs of computing and Internet-related technologies on people who are blind or vision impaired’. Scott is legally blind and as such understands the importance of access at a personal level.

10 Responses
  1. 2009 July 12

    I am in favour of formal guidelines or regs for accessible Australian Gov2.0 services and applications.

    There are features and conventions in most technologies used to create accessible online experiences. Thanks for US Section 508 legislation, Adobe has ensured that products made with Flash or Acrobat (ie. PDFs) can be accessible. (Disclosure: I worked for Macromedia/Adobe to include accessibility features in their sunset Authorware product).

    I think that to a large extent, Section 508 was intended to be leadership by example. Because so many developers adopted design practices that accommodated accessibility, the same features could then easily be installed in non-government applications.

    I agree that the Government has a problem applying popular web-2.0 services that lack accessibility. I think that Government should avoid services that are difficult for too many to use.

    For a web-developer, answering accessibility needs add little cost to online development. But developers do need to be aware of those needs. I strongly support design approaches that have universal application. These should be encouraged to evolve.

    When I was developing e-learning, we preferred the pragmatic approach that Scott recommends. For example, I built a lot of drag-and-drop interactive exercises that were impossible for vision-impaired to complete. But they still received the factual material behind it, and the exercises could be completed by pairs working together.

    Guidelines or regulations should describe what all end-users should expect, rather than prescribe particular technical solutions. That said, developers for government sites should be compelled to stick to appropriate W3C standards.

    RSS feeds and services like Twitter can be rendered to end-users in many different ways. So they can choose the client software or appliance that is easiest to use. Government might recommend facilities that offer better accessibility for some.

    Certainly, if the probability of a disabled person needing access to particular content is small, it may be easier to just make available a real human being at the end of a telephone to mediate the experience!

  2. 2009 July 12
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

    Accessibility, at lots of different levels, is inescapable as a design parameter for government activity, on or off-line. Some good points in the post and comment and these provisions have to feature prominently in any government 2.0 design.

    By the same token, innovation rarely happens all at once. Presumably we don’t want to stop innovation on the grounds that whatever is being developed isn’t immediately accessible to everyone? Lots of Web 2.0 tools are not accessible to people who simply don’t know how to use them or have no familiarity with their potential and functionality. We need to fashion an approach that doesn’t slow down the innovation engine but, at the same time, accepts that success is inextrciably bound up with wide, inclusive adoption and access.

  3. 2009 July 12

    I’d like to see a number of steps in Australia.

    1) The Australian government adopt 508-style legislation to enforce the accessibility of products and services provided to Australian government.

    2) Funded ongoing assessments of Australian government web site and online application usability and a publicly released scorecard. This occurs, for example, every two-years in New Zealand.

    3) Accessibility principles being applied across government products and services provided in all mediums. There are printed government documents that have not been optimised for accessibility purposes, some government offices are inaccessible and other channels are not always designed with accessibility principles in mind.

    4) More training and support for accessibility for government employees. I have found a low understanding of accessibility (and usability) principles across public servants at all levels and while there is some excellent training available at operational levels, there is nothing available for Managers and Senior Managers to help them understand how to factor accessibility into their decision-making processes.

    5) A multi-channel approach to accessibility in government. Instead of the current focus on maximising the accessibility for each specific channel without consideration of the others, it is more appropriate to look at maximising accessibility across all channels. This would provide more cost-effective delivery of accessible services for citizens and potentially provide for greater accessibility across channels than can currently be delivered purely via online.

    6) Consideration of accessibility in the judging of the AGIMO e-Awards to ensure that the finalists and winning solution are appropriately designed to be accessible for citizens – a test that past winners may not have had to meet.



  4. 2009 July 13

    Hi Scott,

    I’d love to hear your opinions on how APIs relate to Accessibility.

    I strongly believe that if we encourage government services to cleanly separate their/our underlying data from the presentation layer, then to make that underlying data accessible via published and open APIs, that a richer and more diverse range of access points can then be supported.

    NOTE: I recently submitted a post on this topic “APIs, Accessibility and Mobility”

    I think your point about the impracticality of a “one size fits all” approach is right and that instead of improving access this simply diminishes the utility delivered to everyone.

    APIs using open standards allow all audiences from small segments with specific special needs, through to large mainstream groups and even small early adopter segments with high tech devices to access and interact with governments in a way that is culturally relevant and appropriate for them.

    Personally I’m concerned that some groups are fixated on an Accessible Presentation Layer without thinking about the broader Accessibility benefits of Open Data and APIs.

    My hope is that we can get these two movements working together to create a better result for all.

  5. 2009 July 15

    Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts on my blog post, I really appreciate it. In addition to strongly agreeing with all of you on the importance of access and the need to consider a Section 508-style approach, one point that really struck me that I hadn’t thought about before was the inclusion of access in e-government awards, and how that would raise standards within government. This sounds like an excellent idea and one I’d certainly encourage the taskforce to take on board.

    On the accessible API front, I wholeheartedly agree. From a technical standpoint most mainstream operating systems, development frameworks and authoring tools have evolved to a point now where they all feature accessible APIs and the ability to use them. For assistive technology products, the APIs are the building blocks of access and it’s extremely important that they are used. However, in terms of implementation, it tends to fall down. In a corporate environment, I appreciate that for a lot of developers they find it difficult to balance the desire to use accessible APIs, with pressing client requests and strict deadlines. In government, however, there are policies that support IT access and I believe developers should be given the time and support to incorporate the use of accessible APIs in their work.

    If any developers out there would like some more information on how to incorporate accessibility into their work, please feel free to contact me. I’ve also put some resources on our MAA website in the New Media section, I’ll be speaking at the Sydney Deep .NET users group n August so please feel free to come along.


  6. 2009 July 17

    Talking about accessibility: I am a big advocate for publishing videos with subtitles/captions and audio descriptions. And to be quite honest, I was rather disappointed that the gov 2.0 intro video at did not provide subtitles. I understand that this is because of the flash player that wordpress offers, but one could have chosen a different flash player (e.g. jwplayer or flowplayer).

    Anyways: it is important to think about accessibility beyond simple text documents. Audio and video files need to be included, too! Just wanted to make sure this is being stated.

  7. 2009 July 18

    If the platform is open (with decent apis etc. ), others should be able to assist / it should be possible to build on it to provide access to disabled people. Perhaps ensuring that government websites are build to comply with standards and are designed for open access (means without 3rd party extensions to access content (i.e. no flash or silverlight) *without* an alternative version being available).

    If the Australian government was to copy the idea of the united stated and have a like site this would be a good starting point. In addition further adoption of web 2.0 technologies being integrated with government provided services *(especially *wiki* and or user created /modified content based )*.

    Lastly, appropriate licensing should be chosen for what should be public data (perhaps a modified version of a creative commons ?). For example the cityrail timetables, so that others can actually build on the already existing information.

  8. 2009 August 7

    Can’t find the appropriate thread … looking for security.
    With the upcoming reviews of the internet addressing systems, it would be good if we could encourage those responsible to fix address blocks allocated to countries (within a NIC).
    The benefit of this is that it makes it easier to maintain your banned and permitted address database.
    As it is now, you find countries wedged into little gaps in IP address blocks. You could, for example find a small Chinese address block wedged between two Australian address blocks, which means that the level of granularity in address blocking goes right down to the least significant 255.
    Maybe that’s not (yet) a Gov 2.0 issue, but it certainly would help with internet security for transaction systems, including eGov.

  9. 2009 August 7

    I’d agree with Scott and others on the inclusion of access in e-government awards, and how that would raise standards within government.

    This should extend beyond awards into requirements for any and all grant funding.

    This can be extended to other governmnet to government transactions, focussed in areas where one part of governmnet is seeking money from another: link the money to the requirement by embedding it in automated funding application tools.

  10. 2009 September 23
    Lloyd Bunting permalink

    Adding to my post of Aug 7: As one tracks down the source of security threats, one discovers the interesting relationship between Russia and China … e.g. where a Russian hacker’s .RU domains are hosted on a server at a Chinese IP address. It would be great if the AU Govt could build a database of IP addresses that are sources of attack. It’s an alternative/complement to hacking, spam and DDoS management.

Comments are closed.