Reports surfaced this month that the Commonwealth Bank is facing legal action over the accessibility of its point of sale eftpos machine known as Albert. The news stands as a stark reminder that even the biggest companies, those with resources, compliance expertise, and — according to the CBA — the will to build accessibility into its services, can be easily tripped up without due diligence to process.
Nadia Mattiazzo, who is blind, is alleging the touchscreen terminal and its lack of a tactile keypad is discriminatory.
It follows a breakdown of negotiations between the CBA and advocacy groups which claim the bank has refused to offer an acceptable accessibility solution for blind or vision-impaired users of the 88 thousand Albert devices in operation in Australia.
Which-50 has been investigating the accessibility of digital technology for several weeks, including the Albert terminal.
According to Gisele Mesnage, founder of the Digital Gap Initiative, for blind people like herself, using Albert is a daunting experience. She says she raised concerns over the device in 2015 following a demonstration of Albert. But it wasn’t until late 2016 that she had her first “real encounter” with the technology.
“I was with a friend doing some Christmas shopping at a popular hobby store and I took my purchases to the counter. Then I realised that the store had an Albert,” Mesnage told Which-50.
“Even though the manager knew how to turn on the device’s ‘accessibility mode’ and I was familiar with it, after two attempts I had not been able to enter the PIN on the touch screen. The music over the PA was loud and customers were queuing behind me. I ended up paying cash with money I had put aside for my week’s expenses. I walked out feeling quite literally sick.”
A Commonwealth Bank spokesperson told Which-50 the accessibility of new technology “presents an industry-wide challenge” and the Albert device had been developed with accessibility in mind.
“Throughout the development of Albert, we worked collaboratively with our technology partners, accessibility specialists and individuals with a range of vision loss to deliver the current accessibility solution on Albert,” the spokesperson said.
But Mesnage contends the current solution is unacceptable and Albert is a “textbook example of why we need systemic reforms for accessibility”.
Indeed, despite widely accepted standards on accessibility of technology and legislation aimed at ensuring they are met, progress on digital accessibility has been, at best, a mixed bag.
While some digital technology has revolutionised the lives of people with disabilities, other poorly designed technology has created “digital barriers” and further excluded them.
Slow and mixed progress
A decade ago industry had high hopes that digital technology could help solve accessibility by building it into the development process. Standards were set and commitments from leaders were made. But currently, inaccessible technology is still a significant challenge for millions of Australians, advocacy groups are struggling with awareness, and commitment from political leaders has waned.
“It is fair to say that Australia has had a mixed record on improving accessibility to digital technology for people with disability,” Alastair McEwin, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, told Which-50.
“There have been some great strides in some forms of technology, such as captioning of videos on social media for people who are deaf or hard of hearing; however, other forms, such as touchscreen technology and ATMs, remain inaccessible particularly for people who are blind or have low vision.”
According to McEwin, “We still have a long way to go in developing truly inclusive technology.”
The Disability Discrimination Act in conjunction with advisory notes from the Australian Human Rights Commission require organisations to offer equal access to their digital products and services.
However they have seldom been tested, notwithstanding two landmark cases. In 2000 Bruce Maguire challenged the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games over the accessibility of the Olympic web site. In 2014 Gisele Mesnage sued Coles over its inaccessible web site. Both cases resulted in determinations that the organisations must fix their sites to make them accessible.
But ultimately accessible digital technology has remained a challenge.
“Whilst the law is clear on the requirement for accessibility, this has not translated into fully accessible technology,” said Alastair McEwin.
There’s also been slow progress from government on the issue after once being considered a global leader on digital accessibility. Despite a 2010 commitment to have government web sites conform to the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 by 2012, a 2017 study [pdf] found that three out of four government web sites remained inaccessible at the deadline. According to the study, current levels of government web site accessibility are unreported.
Ultimately it means the strategy has had “little effect” in improving digital accessibility, according to McEwin.
“What is required is a combination of punitive measures like fines for non-compliance with the DDA, as well as education about the benefits of inclusive technology for all in the community, including people with disability.”
So why are so many organisations failing to deliver accessible digital products and services?
The other advocate groups Which-50 spoke with agreed with McEwin —meaningful change requires a multipronged approach which is being stymied by a lack of awareness.
“Most people don’t even know what accessibility is. I’m sure they would care if they saw the impact that it had,” Manish Amin, the Centre for Inclusive Design CEO told Which-50.
The benefits of accessible design quickly become apparent, but there is a lack of understanding around the issue, Amin said. It’s a point evident at the top of some of Australia’s biggest companies.
According to the Australian Institute of Company Directors, research has shown “that few boards report technology skills as part of their skills matrices”.
“This suggests that there may be a relatively low level of awareness of accessibility in technology issues in Australian boardrooms, although this will vary,” said AICD General Manager Advocacy, Louise Petschler.
The lack of awareness is compounded by market pressures and manifests in poor design, according to Stewart Hay, Co Founder and Managing director of Intopia Digital — an agency specialising in accessibility solutions.
“The awareness just isn’t there. So that leads to a scenario where people try to build fast, quick, short, sharp solutions. But they don’t build them with that broader awareness or understanding of everyone’s needs,” Hay said.
Even for those with some awareness of accessibility requirements, a “bean counter” mentality often means projects are misperceived as prohibitively expensive. According to Hay, “Accessibility usually doesn’t get picked up till right at the end, and thus it’s quite expensive.”
“The reality is if it was actually dealt with like any other scenario — like system security — what you’ll find is that it’s as cost effective as anything else plus you’ll have all the business benefits that go with it.”
“Really it’s a bit of a false economy to even suggest that it’s actually going to cost more when it’s actually just good design practice, good development,” Hay said.
However, there are signs the conversation is changing as organisations understand the social and financial benefits of getting accessibility right. Interestingly, that change appears to be being led by the private sector.
The Business Case
Advocacy groups have, to an extent, changed tack on how digital accessibilty is framed. There is now a push to show that making digital products and services more accessible also delivers better financial outcomes.
According to the Diversity Council of Australia CEO Lisa Annese, accessibility is a “win-win” for organisations.
“This is not about people without disabilities doing some charitable work for people with disabilities. This is about engaging for better business outcomes, better performance and better customer service.”
Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Alastair McEwin, said organisations are becoming more responsive to accessibility.
“Many private companies are starting to recognise the business case for having accessible technology and web sites, as this means customers with a disability will use their services,” he said.
“By investing in accessible technology, they are seeing returns on this investment by increased customer uptake. Employees with disability also benefit from inclusive technology as it means they can perform their tasks like any other employee,” McEwin said.
Indeed inaccessible digital products will potentially preclude sales and workforce participation to the nearly one in five Australians with a disability. And with an aging population that level of exclusion will likely increase, without change.
There was a constant message from the experts Which-50 spoke with. Accessibility needs to improve. Consider accessibility from day one of the design phase. Have people with disabilities involved in development and testing. Build digital accessibility into your culture and you will see the payoffs.
As digital technology becomes more ingrained in our society, the stakes are too high to do anything less.