Since the invention of the personal computer people have marveled at the way information technology can open the world, especially when linked to the Internet.
But for people with physical disabilities, IT can be a tease, for if you can’t work a keyboard or see a screen, what good is it?
That’s why a number of governments around the world are working at making IT accessible for their citizens, either through legislation or guidelines.
One of them is Ontario, which last week held a one-day town hall for public servants in IT-related jobs like Web developers to help them meet an important deadline at the end of this year.
Under the Accessibility for Ontarians Disability Act (AODA), bureaucrats have until then to make provincial electronic information and communications services compliant with version 2.0 of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).It’s more than a legal obligation, says Shamira Madhany, (pictured) Ontario’s chief diversity and accessibility officer, who spoke at last week’s session. Bureaucrats themselves have a stake in this, she said.
“I asked them, ‘Who here is not going to get old, who is not going to wear glasses, not going to get arthritis?’”
An estimated 15 per cent of Ontarians have disabilities that impair their ability to get online forms, read information or register for services online, she said. Some 11 per cent of provincial public servants say they fit into that category.
“Although we have legislation that tells us we have to comply with the act, we want to go way beyond just checking off boxes that we’ve complied. We want to ensure that because we have a unique role as an employer, policy maker and service provider, we go beyond our obligations and really change people’s behavior so they’re thinking accessibility at the onset of anything they do.”
For example, PDFs are a usual way public servants make documents available online because they preserve original type and graphics. But they’re almost invisible to an electronic reader used by a person with visual impairment, particularly if the document has merely been scanned from print into PDF.
The solution, Madhany said, is to create a document first in a world processor with a tool for checking accessibility compliance. That usually means formatting the document using heading and styles that an electronic reader can read, and avoiding colour as much as possible.
If a PDF can’t be made compliant, perhaps an accessible summary will do.
The province has a number of ways to help public servants, including a centre of excellence for accessibility, with software and best practices. There’s also a wiki for posting questions and asking for help, and a series of online videos. For those in parts of the province that don’t have enough bandwidth to watch the videos, they can borrow DVD versions.
Ontario is believed to be the only jurisdiction that has a legislated accessibility mandate. However, Jeff Braybrook, a former federal deputy chief technology officer turned consultant, noted Ottawa’s common look and feel standards – which he helped oversee – are mandatory.
Public servants have until July, 2013 to ensure that all federal electronic material complies with WCAG 2.0 as well as a new usability standard.
Like Ontario, Ottawa has a number of online resources available for bureaucrats, many from Treasury Board.There are lots of tips to making a Web site or documents accessible, he said, but many come down to one: “If Google can’t see it, a blind person can’t see it.” That means leveraging the usual tricks for making something visible to a search engine – using headers and titles rather than making text bold, for example. Headers can be seen by electronic readers; bold text can’t.
Dan Shire, an IT specialist on accessibility at IBM Canada, who spoke at the Ontario town hall, said some Web and software development processes haven’t caught up with accessibility standards like WCAG 2.0. But there are some open source tools, such as plug-ins for popular Web browsers. Others are available from the Eclipse Technology Project.
Still, he said, there is a price for building in accessibility into any project. IBM estimates it could run between 5 and 10 per cent – but, he added, that should go down as the development team gets experience.
“One of the challenges with accessibility is there’s not a lot of good ROI,” says Braybrook. The reason to do it today is to make IT mangers feel it will result in something positive for a user.
That, he added, is more persuasive than telling staff they have to do it.