Accessibility for all or none?
Accessibility has discussed on this blog before and it has been raised in all the public forums I have been to. It deserves more discussion.
Let me start with an example: A federal department said it would publish on-line the hundreds of documents received from a submissions process. Most were received in Word or PDF format. Government accessibility rules require all content to be published in HTML as well. The Department, understandably, did not have the resources to convert 300 submissions to HTML format. In the end none of the submissions were published on the departmental website.
The result of meeting the mandate was that access to substantial, valuable content was eliminated. I think the intent of the rules is to provide access for everyone.
Is this acceptable? If accessibility requirements cannot be met, does that mean that content or systems cannot go on-line?
There are 3 scenarios in the develoment of systems:
1- It is intrinsic to the process and accessibility is released with the system. This usually happens with systems designed with a specific audience in mind.
2- A system is released and then accessibility is developed later. This happens with systems that need a quick release or where the development budget is insufficient to include fully functional accessibility in the beginning.
3- Systems are released and accessibility is not considered important and not addressed for a long time.
Accessibility costs money. Putting a font re-sizer and alt tags on everything is just surface accessibility, and it is not just about screen-readers. Different access requirements create sometimes conflicting design requirements. For content-only sites it is a no brainer and content-only sites should have at least basic accessibility. Functional sites are more complicated, particularly for people using assistive technologies. Getting this right means understanding the audience and testing functionality with the audience. As you can imagine this can add a lot to setup costs.
In general the business sector will assess accessibility requirements based on the business case, which will include intended audience and CSR policies. The not-for-profit sector will implement requirements based on audience and available budget for the project.
Government, on the other hand, is mandated to provide accessibility in all online systems. There should be no argument about including accessibility in budgets for government projects.
How can government encourage intrinsic development or shorten the delay described in scenario 2? And how can government influence change in other sectors?
An important way that government can contribute to accessibility is by insisting that accessibility development done as part of a project is added back into the original software product. This is easy to do with Open Source systems, and will very quickly flow out to other installations of the software. This will have a powerful flow on effect for accessibility. For proprietary systems, perhaps government can insist that accessibility enhancements are provided to all other customers free of charge in the normal update process.
Perhaps also, systems with accessibility already built in could be preferred in the selection process.
Mechanisms such as this will mean that intrinsic design is more likely, more within reach of the not-for-profit sector and the business sector, and more often the standard practice. This moves all of us closer to 1 and reduces the time gap in 2. Will this work?
The digital engagement discussion is not just about systems installed or developed specifically for government, but also the use of existing, free or commercial, on-line systems for engagement. If these do not meet accessibility standards should they not be considered at all? The nature of digital engagement is more immediate and timeliness is important. Online timeframes are shorter and users are impatient. Sometimes this may mean that access for many will be available before access for all. Is this acceptable?
Another example is the recent Whitehouse Open Government Initiative which used tools that are not particularly accessible. It was clear that timeliness was important. Had they waited for government to develop accessible tools, or for the supplying companies to implement accessiblity the moment would have been lost.