Accessibility and Government 2.0
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.