Accessibility goes digital

Accessibility goes digital

< Back to Articles | Topics: Responsible Business

Contributors:

Mina Atia
Halifax Chamber of Commerce
Communications Coordinator

The World Health Organization estimates more than one billion people globally live with a disability. As we learn more about how we can support approximately one in seven of our entire population, digital access is at the forefront of the accessibility conversation.

In 2006, more than 170 countries signed The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with disabilities (UNCRPD), which requires countries to identify obstacles and eliminate barriers of information and communications technologies.

“Things are getting less accessible overall because of the way websites are being designed today,” says Lisa Snider, Senior Digital Accessibility Consultant, Trainer and Owner of Access Changes Everything, a Canadian digital accessibility consulting company.

“There was a major study done of about a million website homepages across the world, and 98 per cent of them still had basic accessibility issues.”

A website checker for accessibility called WebAim conducted an analysis of the world’s top homepages for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 (WCAG is the ISO Standard for digital accessibility). It covers a wide range of recommendations for accessibility to help people with disabilities access web content on several devices.

The first check in 2019 found 97.8 per cent of the websites tested had accessibility issues. Interestingly (and disappointingly), a second test in 2020 found 98.1 per cent of the websites had accessibility issues.

“We're going backwards in some ways, but the good news is that the legislation in Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, soon to be New Brunswick, BC and the federal government’s Accessibility Act are helping us, because people are becoming more aware of what is needed,” says Snider.

According to Statistics Canada, about 19 per cent of Nova Scotians (ages 15 and older) identify as having a disability, which amounts to approximately 144,000 people, or 1 in 5. This percentage will increase to 25 per cent by 2030.

“There already was a push for making workplaces, public spaces, educational spaces, and every aspect of how an able bodied person lives in Nova Scotia, more accessible for persons with disabilities,” says Joanne Bernard, President and CEO of Easter Seals Nova Scotia.

ES
Easter Seals NS

In 2017, Nova Scotia passed the Accessibility Act and became the third province to adopt the legislation. The goal is for Nova Scotia to be accessible by 2030 by putting the law into practice, addressing issues related to accessibility and disability.

An Accessibility Advisory Board was also formed to inform the government on the development of the accessibility standards accordingly, with the majority of board members being persons with disabilities (PWDs).

“In my experience, because I work with clients all over Canada and in the States, Nova Scotia has been the top in terms of people wanting to know how to make things accessible,” says Snider.

Many of the issues found by the WebAim checker are basic ones, such as poor colour contrast or no alternative text for people who are blind, Deaf-Blind or low vision.

“For our social media now, we make sure to use pictures, larger font, contrasting colours and special texts so that the screen reader could describe the picture that's being used,” says Bernard.

“Whenever those are available, we make sure they’re utilized properly.”

However, the WebAim checker used for this study can’t check all of the WCAG guidelines. It only checks a few of them. On top of that, the WCAG ISO Standard doesn’t cover everything and doesn’t include checking for colour blindness or standards that can help people with cognitive, neurological, intellectual and learning disabilities.

Accessibility advocates are calling for more forms of testing and standardizing and a comprehensive improvement of PWDs’ user experience.

“We can never get anything 100% accessible, because we're human,” says Snider. “Humans have different needs, we want to get everything as accessible as possible for most people, but then other people will present other needs. We then provide possible different options.”

The WCAG 2.1 recommendations revolve around artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning as emerging technologies and the role they potentially play in improving the lives of PWDs.

Engaging PWDs and increasing their capacity is not only an accessibility issue, it’s key to closing the employment gap and including everyone in the workforce.

“We're unique in a way that we have a broad range of lifestyles in mobility and accessibility programs that really have been created to improve the lives of persons with disabilities in Nova Scotia,” says Bernard.

For business implementation and sustainability purposes, organizations need to develop their operational plans and move forward with the accessibility initiative.

“When business is having to do more online, it can be a business's lifeline,” says Snider. “It can be either sink or swim.”

Digital accessibility also includes the consumer and user experience, whereas WCAG 2.1 plays a part in standardizing the digital-content compliance. But it’s not to the fullest extent.

“It’s getting better, and it's helping. But there's still a long way to go,” says Snider.

While the digital divide is rearing its head with the tremendous uptake of online resources (a result of the pandemic), digital accessibility is becoming increasingly essential.

“The pandemic has highlighted the inequalities for persons with disabilities,” says Bernard. “It shined a spotlight on the effects of everything from isolation, to transportation, to communication, and just to the programs that are available for persons with disabilities.”

A reinforcement of the need for accessibility to include effective use of products, devices, services and/or environment is now crucial. And with such a need comes a new wave of tools to push for an accessible world.

“Digital accessibility is something that we are very cognizant of,” says Bernard. “During the pandemic when everyone was home, we did a virtual New Leaf and were able to have access through Facebook.”

The leadership of New Leaf Enterprises, Easer Seals Nova Scotia’s social enterprise that supports PWDs, was able to host live music, yoga and cooking classes and trivia games on Facebook for the majority of Easter Seals’ clients. It was a fantastic way for the staff to engage the clients fully, yet virtually. It also kept the clients engaged through their usual programs to help alleviate their isolation trouble.

“It was a tremendous success for us that previously had never been done,” says Bernard. “Under the pandemic and with the cancellation of AccessAbility Week, the virtual New Leaf and our ability to reach out to our clients basically just soared.”

National AccessAbility Week (NAAW) is a celebration of the valuable contributions of Canadian PWDs. It’s also an opportunity to recognize the efforts of individuals, communities and workplaces actively working to remove barriers to accessibility and inclusion.

This year, AccessAbility Week was held from May 31 to June 6, but it was shifted to a virtual celebration to reflect public health instructions.

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LakeCity Works

“It’s really a celebration of what we do with our internal programs and what we strive to do with our employment program, which is connecting folks with disabilities and mental illness to the workplace,” says Liam O’Rourke, Executive Director of LakeCity Works.

AccessAbility Week showcases that by increasing accessibility for PWDs, they can in turn participate in all social ventures, fulfill employment needs, access resources and services, and successively enrich the Canadian economy.

At a more dire level of accessibility needs, one in every 10 Canadian households don’t have access to internet. This inequity is even more prevalent amongst PWDs.

“We’re a medium sized non-profit in Dartmouth, and we don't have the budget to fund internet access,” says O’Rourke.

The federal government announced back in June a $1.7 billion Universal Broadband Fund to provide internet access, lower its costs and increase the speed. But there’s yet to be any development on the fund or how it’s going to move forward to secure optimum internet access for all.

“Until we have that sort of universal access issue addressed, we can’t run all the online workshops or access online job fairs,” says O’Rourke. “So if people with disabilities can't access it, then it's a moot point.”

The availability of affordable, high-speed internet access is the first step towards a levelled accessibility for all. Once secured, organizations need to look at accessibility beyond the physical approach.

“Remember your digital presence as well: your websites, your documents and your videos, especially during COVID,” says Snider.

Accessibility is everyone’s fight. If Nova Scotia plans to be accessible by 2030, then all individuals and organizations need to work together to find and implement solutions.

“Fight to be curious and find out more,” says Snider. “It's not just doors and washrooms.

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