Empowerment & Autonomy on Global Accessibility Awareness Day
It’s easy amongst all the large-scale world events and fast news cycles of 2021 to miss that today is the tenth Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD).
Perhaps an obvious question, but why is it important?
The purpose of GAAD is to get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion specifically, and the more than one billion disabled people globally who benefit from considered and adapted environments and technologies.
Keeping digital and physical accessibility at the top of the agenda is not just an ethical move, but is also the right thing to do commercially.
On that note – and this is probably something you don’t hear very often – today also gives us an opportunity to celebrate and speak positively about the people and organisations that are going above and beyond when it comes to access and inclusion. So much is said about businesses falling short, but I believe it’s crucial to applaud those who are collaborating correctly, becoming standard-bearers for accessibility, and smashing their aspirational inclusion goals.
There isn’t one single company that has got everything right and isn’t that the beauty of the access and inclusion challenge, in general? The scope of disability is so huge, and needs and requirements are constantly changing, so it’s only right that engaging with access and inclusion is a constant journey of learning and exercise in empathy.
Honesty & Transparency
Even being honest and transparent about the journey that businesses still need to go on, is so important. Those of us with accessibility requirements do not want every single hotel, museum or airport to say that it can cater brilliantly to our needs, to then not be able to deliver on arrival. Two excellent websites that champion those who are honest about their accessibility journeys and welcome disabled guests are AccessAble and Sociability.
But in the physical and digital spaces, there’s still a lot to do.
In 2020, WebAIM analysed one million home pages for accessibility issues and found the following: 98.1% of homepages had at least one failure in terms of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). Disappointing, but sadly not surprising.
I think a big part of this failure relates to the way that we generally perceive disability; that it’s all about mobility impairments, physical requirements and nothing more. Let’s face it, even the International Symbol of Access depicts a wheelchair user! However, only 8% of disabled people are wheelchair users, so you have another 92% with differing, or additional, requirements, related to how they access the built environment and/or the web.
The Link between Physical & Digital
Physical and digital access are absolutely not mutually exclusive. If I visit the webpage of a gallery, for example, and I can’t find the information I want, I’m unlikely to visit in person. So there needs to be a better understanding of the connection between digital first impressions and physical attendance. Businesses need to remember that their website is usually the first port of call for most disabled people, many of whom are just waiting to be loyal, returning customers both online and in the physical world, but that opportunity isn’t always offered due to the on and offline barriers that are present.
There are a range of ways in which we can all improve our digital access. Web accessibility isn’t just about font size, colour contrast and alternative text; it’s also about compatibility with assistive technologies and devices. What if limited dexterity means you can’t use a mouse anymore? Without the correct formatting of a page, it’s almost impossible to navigate a website successfully using only a keyboard. Similarly, for users who might be blind or partially sighted or have a cognitive impairment, browsing a website and gleaning the information required with the use of a screen reader can be incredibly difficult if links and sub-headings are not placed and formatted correctly. And what about other aspects of online presence? Businesses who want to show that they are inclusive to D/deaf and disabled people should be doing so by using the correct language and terminology on their social media accounts, as well as representative images, wherever possible. Job adverts should also be accessible in form, inclusively written, and posted in places that disabled audiences are likely to have access to.
An excellent example of an organisation doing physical and digital access well is the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum. Visitors can individually select accessible media services during registration that then lead to a personalised, tailored experience throughout. With each exhibit or interactive touchscreen featuring tactile, retractable keypads designed to assist with screen navigation, and open captions and American Sign Language being available across all video and interactive content throughout the museum, the whole experience has been designed from top to bottom with inclusion at its core. And, even better, disabled people themselves have been a part of that designing process.
It’s important to remember that disabled people are experts in their own lived experience, but we are sadly often seen as a cohort of the global population that organisations reluctantly have to cater for. Switching that mindset and embedding accessibility and empathy into everything you do as a business, and engaging with disabled people themselves for all your decision making processes, will bring about a more positive result for those of us with access requirements, and will improve the user experience for every single person that enters your establishment or visits your website, disabled or not.
I've seen first-hand how involving disabled experts with lived experience can turn an overwhelming and unmanageable breadth and depth of access and inclusion information into bite-size, positive challenges that organisations suddenly have the energy and empathy to successfully solve.Emily Yates - Head of Accessibility, CCD
We’re all constantly learning, and that’s exactly how it should be. But, committing to a policy of honesty around access and inclusion allows those potential visitors or employees the autonomy and independence to make their own choice regarding the websites and venues they’d like to visit and engage with.
That’s what Global Accessibility Awareness Day is all about – empowering disabled people to have that independence and autonomy, whilst committing to a positive and inclusive user experience – and that’s all anyone is asking for.
Footnote: if you want to learn more about digital accessibility, I recommend taking the free Digital Accessibility Foundations course provided by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Information Technologies in Education (IITE). It’s a great starting point for building an understanding of digital access.