From The Experts: Global Digital Accessibility Developments During COVID-19 — Smashing Magazine

Robin is Head of Digital Inclusion and part of the globally-acclaimed accessibility and tech team of AbilityNet and has spoken at numerous events in recent …
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From The Experts: Global Digital Accessibility Developments During COVID-19

From The Experts: Global Digital Accessibility Developments During COVID-19

  • 22 min read
  • Accessibility,
    User Experience

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Robin Christopherson MBE, Head of Digital Inclusion at UK tech experts AbilityNet, has been hosting a series of monthly webinars with senior accessibility guests from global brands such as Microsoft and ATOS, and UK giants like Barclays and Sainsbury’s. They’re talking COVID, the challenges and opportunities the crisis brings, agile adjustments, digital inclusion and much, much more. Want food for thought from global experts in inclusion? Key takeaways to help plan ahead? Read on.

What impact has COVID-19 had on companies across the UK and beyond? I’ve been hosting a series of monthly webinars with senior accessibility guests from global brands such as Microsoft and ATOS, and UK giants like Barclays and Sainsbury’s. We’ve been talking Covid, the challenges and opportunities the crisis brings, agile adjustments, digital inclusion and much, much more.

Top Tips From The Experts

Visit our website for this evolving series of webinars for full interviews and transcripts, but in this article, I’ve brought together the top tips on Covid challenges and opportunities covered by my guests to date. Let’s start with the Chief Accessibility Officer (CAO) at Microsoft.

Jenny Lay-Flurrie (Microsoft)

Photo of Jenny Lay-FlurrieThe very fact that Microsoft has a CAO — an accessibility lead at C-level — demonstrates its commitment to accessibility (AKA ‘Digital inclusion’. Follow the accessibility guidelines and you end up with a product that is inclusive and easier to use by all.) Importantly (in my opinion) Jenny also has ‘lived experience’ of disability.

Jenny began by emphasising the priority that all companies should place in digital inclusion;

Jenny is deaf and has, before Covid, always been accompanied by an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter. Since that first day of lockdown they’ve never been together in the same room;

This is why having senior team members and decision-makers with lived experience of disability is so vital to ensure that accessibility is sufficiently and continually prioritized within your organization — and that decisions are based upon input from those who really know what both inclusion and exclusion looks like.

Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk — its free customer support service for those with disabilities — saw volumes rocket after lockdown;

Whether you decide to provide well-signposted channels specifically for disabled customers, or whether you ensure that individuals flagging a disability to the general customer support agents are provided the level of specialist support they need, the ability of users to get answers to questions relating to alternative formats, accessibility settings or assistive technologies is crucial.

Video conferencing has obviously been one of the key technologies that has made home working possible. After lockdown, the majority of questions that Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk received were about Teams. Because Teams was already accessible, they could then go on to address additional requests (most commonly-requested was AI-powered captions) without having to scramble to retrofit inclusion that hadn’t been sufficiently prioritized pre-Covid. Jenny says;

She goes on to highlight the challenge associated with disabled employees working from home without physical support on-hand;

Accessibility has always driven innovation in digital products — and Covid has prioritized their implementation. Many of the new features in Teams, for example, were driven by a strategy of inclusion. Something as simple as hand raise (which lets the host see that you’re waiting to ask a question) was included after feedback from users experiencing anxiety around when to interrupt the conversation — but as a result had significant benefits for those with disabilities or impairments. Jenny says,

A big thanks to Jenny for her insights into how an inclusion agenda has both benefitted Microsoft and its customers around the world during the Covid crisis and beyond.

Now let’s turn to the ever-so-slightly important issue of accessible banking…

Paul Smyth (Barclays)

Photo of Paul SmythPaul Smyth is a fellow MBE recipient, and founder and leader of Digital Accessibility at UK retail bank; Barclays. It goes without saying that effective access to online banking is very important and, during this period of the pandemic, absolutely essential. Imagine the impact of delivering those services in a way that excludes around 20% of your customers — and in a way that often makes it harder for the other 80% too. A commitment to accessibility and providing sufficient support to disabled and vulnerable customers is key.

Paul chose to focus first on supporting disabled and vulnerable customers:

At the onset of lockdown, the use of cash and branches reduced significantly. Barclays proactively reached out to all disabled and otherwise vulnerable customers, outlined extra support and services available, made sure that those customers were fast-tracked when they used phone banking along with NHS workers, and elected to provide specialist support through their main number and not a special one “buried away”. Both this approach and that of Microsoft to provide a specific support line for disabled customers are valid — the main thing is that people can easily find out about the channel and easily find the information and support they need when using it.

Barclays also put in place some very practical measures aimed at bridging the absence of ‘hands-on’ support that vulnerable customers may experience during the pandemic. These included contactless wearables, that the customer could top up for family or friends to then take to do their shopping without having to give them their credit or debit card, as well as ’Cash to the Doorstep’ for those who are shielding. Finally, Barclays reviewed its talking ATMs to confirm that user journeys spoke well for blind and visually impaired customers.

Paul then turned to digital banking. He confirmed that millions more are now using its website and app to do online banking.

Barclays has also seen a massive increase in features such as cheque imaging to process and pay a cheque using your mobile’s camera. To help all customers get to grips with these novel new capabilities, Barclays has also created simple guides for those new to digital, on how to use and get the most out of their online and mobile services. Being simple, and inclusive, they will be accessible and understandable to the broadest possible audience.

Paul also had much to say on Barclays’ response to Covid when it comes to its employees. For those with a disability, they were quick to duplicate at home any assistive kit needed at work. As lockdown went on, they had a ten-fold increase in similar requests from other employees without an impairment and, as a result of needing to process the needs of those with disabilities, were then more readily able to put into place scalable solutions for the broader workforce — getting ergonomic chairs and monitors out in volume. They didn’t take a reactive role, however, but proactively invited requests for equipment driven by awareness campaigns.

With regards to transitioning back to the workplace:

Paul also flagged that more socially-distanced workspaces going forward might have advantages for disabled employees, such as better wheelchair access and lower noise levels.

He concludes;

A huge thanks to Paul for some really practical and impactful tips on what prioritizing inclusion looks like in practice. Now let’s turn to a truly global tech giant…

Neil Milliken (ATOS)

Photo of Neil MillikenNeil Milliken is Global Head of Accessibility at ATOS, host of AXS Chat and winner of the 2019 Business Disability Forum award. We got started by talking about the shift to home working and how this was handled in such a massive organisation as ATOS. As an early adopter of flexible work patterns, ATOS were well-prepared for the shift to home working:

Neil emphasized the importance of virtual face-to-face contact, but also warned of overload:

As a blind person, I can still see the benefit of having my camera on so that others can get visual signals while I speak, but others may wish to have theirs off for a host of reasons including bandwidth, visual overload, self-consciousness of their appearance or background or a whole host of other personal circumstances.

Neil also talks about a proactive approach to up-skilling employees:

I couldn’t agree more with Neil here. Professionalizing accessibility within your leads and champions is an important element to ensuring an adequate level of knowledge of both guidelines and testing techniques.

He also flags the importance of identifying future accessibility champions via the apprenticeship route:

As a result, ATOS decided to collaborate on a standardized approach to accessibility apprenticeships:

Lastly, let’s hear from another company delivering a key service during Covid; Sainsbury’s.

Bryn Anderson (Sainsbury’s)

Photo of Bryn AndersonBryn Anderson, formerly of SiteImprove, is now an accessibility specialist at Sainsbury’s and a key part of its on-going mission to be market-leaders in digital inclusion in the retail sector. Himself disabled, he flags how digital inclusion shot to the top of the agenda during lockdown:

I think Bryn’s point here is key. Even though it’s crucial to get buy-in for digital inclusion at the highest level — with the protection of time and resources required to ensure it’s achievable and maintainable in the long-term — it still takes a concerted effort for all those who are involved in digital in any way to get to grips with what inclusive design looks like in their role and daily tasks. Moreover, it’s vital that they hear first-hand from disabled colleagues or guest customers to have the confidence that their interpretation of the accessibility guidelines is appropriate. Don’t do accessibility in a vacuum — involve those with lived experiences and make sure this approach is formalized and frictionless — not ad-hoc and erratic.

I asked Bryn whether Sainsbury’s’s long-standing prioritization of accessibility helped it during Covid:

And it seems that Covid has thrown a new focus on the importance of ensuring that its products are accessible and reflect a user’s preferences:

Bryn continues:

He goes on to say how important it is to bring those voices together in a way that ensures they are evaluated and acted upon. Called the Enable Network, it comprises colleagues with disabilities at every level within the organization.

I asked Bryn about how best to ensure that you can utilize the experience of this wonderfully diverse workforce without it clashing with their day-jobs:

We briefly talked about the role of an automated accessibility checking solution (software that can scan a website and highlight a portion of those accessibility errors present) and if it will ever be able to do a full accessibility audit of a website;

Bryn goes on to warn of organizations that claim to take care of accessibility for you:

It’s true. There’s no shortcut to accessibility — but with some effort, education, and prioritization we see the results.

Lastly, I asked about the challenge of ensuring that inclusive design comes from the content creators and developers, rather than retrofitting, where the onus and responsibility shifts from the people that are developing the solutions to those who must patch and repair accessibility where possible:

It’s true. As we’ve heard from my other guests above, accessibility issues touch every department and every role to some extent — and yet, until it is taught as a standard part of every digital worker’s role, it will require champions with additional knowledge to be actively involved. That’s a tough ask across an organization of the size of Sainsbury’s (or indeed ATOS, Barclays or Microsoft) but these amazing organizations are definitely giving it the priority and resources it deserves.

Some Straightforward Steps To Better Websites

Accessibility can be a daunting topic if you’re just beginning to get to grips with it. Let’s finish off by looking at some simple, straightforward steps to get you started — for websites at least.

These five tips will make your site slicker and better to use for a wider audience and will help you meet your obligations under the Equality Act 2010.

1. Hide Your Mouse To Check Keyboard Accessibility

Making your site accessible without using a mouse is a legal requirement and something that will benefit many of your visitors. People with little vision rely on keyboard access as they cannot easily see the mouse cursor on the screen. Sighted users with motor difficulties such as Parkinson’s or a stroke can find keyboard access simpler as well.

Just by hiding your mouse and trying to access your site and all its options with only a keyboard can show how you’re doing and how to improve this. In particular, make sure that a visible focus indicator is always present (preferably a highly visible one), ie, so it is very obvious where your mouse or cursor is at any given time. Also make sure that there is a logical focus order around the page, ie that the page is set up in a way that doesn’t mean screenreaders or other technology jump all over the page and don’t make sense to all users.

2. Avoid Poor Contrast

Everyone finds low contrast text difficult to read, particularly people with low vision. Use a contrast checking tool such as Tanaguru’s Contrast Finder, this allows you to enter two different colors and check the contrast between them. It can also suggest alternatives if the colors have insufficient contrast. Alternatively, a color picker tool like the Contrast Analyser from the Paciello Group will help.

Hint: Trust your eyes too — it can be simple to spot offending text colors by eye, and then just verify them with the tool. This is best used early in the design process, so that issues can be addressed before the site goes live.

3. Do A Free Accessibility Check

The organization WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) provides a free, automated, online checker here. This can give you quick feedback on some more technical issues on your website, e.g. if forms are correctly marked up with labels. This is a great way to highlight issues during the development process. Be aware that any automated testing can only cover a small subset of all possible accessibility issues. However, it is a valuable technique when used alongside manual testing.

4. Provide An Accessibility Page

An accessibility page is often an opportunity for organizations to state what measures they have taken to make their site accessible. You can also use this page to let people get in touch with any difficulties they experience while using your site. (See AbilityNet’s accessibility page for an example.)

Getting feedback from people visiting your site is very valuable. By making it easier for users to feedback to you directly, you will benefit greatly by both demonstrating your commitment to improving your site, and being able to respond to individual issues as they arise.

5. Content Is King: Know Your Audience

People come to websites to find information, or to carry out an action. It makes sense to make this process as easy as possible for people. Know your expected audience, and write copy accordingly. Using financial jargon may be fine for visitors with a financial background, but other users may miss out. Good practice is to avoid jargon, or if it is necessary, provide a glossary.

Make use of headings, paragraphs, and bulleted lists to break text up into meaningful sections. Make one key point per paragraph. Use different methods to convey information. Some users will prefer to read content, others will benefit from a video, others prefer a simplified, or illustrated guide.

Covid: More Opportunity Than Challenge

In conclusion, it looks like Covid has brought organizations to a realization that now, more than ever, is the time to embrace accessibility and ensure that products are usable by all; all your customers and all your employees. Your organization can also benefit from the digital inclusion bonus by following some of the approaches outlined above.

So, how’s your organization doing? Are you proactively and systematically benefitting from your diverse employees and customers — or are your accessibility efforts ad hoc and uninformed? Do you distribute the responsibility for digital inclusion across departments, or do you rely on an isolated team without the reach or authority to make a real impact? Are you prioritizing accessibility early and putting the right tools and training in place — or are you choosing to reactively retrofit inclusion?

If you’re not sure about the answers to any of the above and you’d like to be stepped through the process of evaluating the level of accessibility that currently exist within your organization’s digital properties, policies, processes, and practices — and systematically assisted in compiling a roadmap to compliance — then organizations such as AbilityNet can help.

At present, only a vanishingly small proportion of websites are accessible and legally compliant. As a disabled person myself, I am only too acutely aware of what digital exclusion means to those shut out of online services. Some of these services (like food shopping, banking or video conferencing) will be vital to survival and employment during this unprecedented time of pandemic and isolation. Others, arguably less essential, will nevertheless immeasurably add to our quality of life. Let’s learn from the mega-brands who have chosen to be inclusive, and let’s help make everyone’s life a little better during Covid and beyond.

AbilityNet’s digital accessibility experts can offer advice about how to improve your website’s accessibility. Visit the AbilityNet website for more information.

You can read all my articles on the power of tech and inclusion on the AbilityNet website.

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This content was originally published here.