Awareness of digital accessibility in Australia is growing thanks to the work of advocates and a global shift towards inclusive design. But for users, the pace of change seems glacial as many organisations continue to view accessibility as an “add on” feature to their technology.

That approach inevitably causes undue problems and costs, according to advocates in the sector.

It is a point underscored by the latest high profile case, the Commonwealth Bank’s bungled “Albert” terminals. Australia’s largest bank settled legal action last year after representatives for blind users successfully argued the accessibility mode of the touchscreen devices was inadequate.

As part of the settlement the Commonwealth Bank agreed to introduce new accessibility features and merchant training which the bank says began rolling out in February. A video tutorial for merchants, which demonstrates how to enable the new accessibility mode as well as the merchant’s role in providing assistance has been available in an unlisted Youtube video for just over two weeks. It currently has eight views.

There are over 90,000 Albert terminals in operation in Australia, according to the Commonwealth Bank.

Day one

“We still have a situation where a lot of the awareness comes very late in the project cycle,” says Stewart Hay, managing director and cofounder of Intopia Digital, a consultancy advising organisations on accessibility.

“It’s usually one of the ‘oh we have to tick the box for accessibility before we go live’. At that point in time it becomes relatively difficult to do the right thing and also do it cost effectively.”

Hay told Which-50 despite cases like the Albert terminal Australia is progressing well on digital accessibility.

“There’s still a long way to go but compared to where we were at just five years ago the growing awareness is fantastic and it’s only leading to better outcomes moving forward.”

Stewart Hay, managing director and cofounder of Intopia Digital

Hay said the conversation is shifting from a compliance focus to an inclusive one as organisations realise digital accessibility is both a social duty and makes business sense — around one in five Australians has a disability and the number is expected to grow with an ageing population.

“The compliance element … has tended to put people off as it [was seen as] making it too difficult for them, too hard. What we’re trying to do is promote the pragmatic positive steps towards the right direction and get people at least moving in the right direction, which is better than not doing anything at all.”

Hay and Intopia advise organisations on how best to approach digital accessibility. He says accessibility considerations need to begin in the planning stage and should involve automated and manual testing, and people with disabilities should be involved early in the design and testing phases.

“Doing all three of those will help any organisation to progress accessibility pretty quickly.”

David Woodbridge, an assistive technology consultant, agrees in Australia accessibility considerations are often still coming too late. He also says awareness is generally improving but some technology makers still lack the appropriate training.

Image of David Woodbridge
David Woodbridge, assistive technology consultant, Vision Australia.

“If you haven’t been told about accessibility then you are not going to implement it,” Woodbridge tells Which-50.

“You still can’t call it the norm.”

Woodbridge is vision impaired and works with Vision Australia advising on a range of technology. He says while the technology is changing but the fundamental message remains the same.

“If I went back in time 20 years ago I’d be having the exact same conversation with people back then. It’s just different hardware and software 20 years ago. Now it’s changed but it’s still the same conversation that we’re having.”

Challenges also remain around what is branded “accessible” and what is “functionally accessible”, according to Woodbridge. He says the Commonwealth Bank’s Albert terminals were a good example of the distinction – the terminals had an accessibility mode but ultimately it was not functional.

Sadly it is far from an isolated incident, Woodbridge says. Often poorly designed software and applications will interfere with or fail to integrate with accessibility hardware. For consumer technology Apple excels, for that very reason; owning both the hardware and software ecosystems goes a long way to ensuring accessibility functionality.

Woodridge says it is unlikely digital accessibility will reach a point where advocacy is not needed anytime soon. But he believes important progress is being made.

“Overall it’s gradually getting better … [But] if we stop it definitely won’t get better and the status quo won’t stay the status quo, it will actually get worse.”

Outcomes

Getting digital accessibility right can have profound impacts on people’s lives.

Christopher Hills is a professional video editor and technology consultant. He has Cerebral Palsy and can’t walk or control his limbs.

“Thanks to a combination of advancements in technology and the support of people close to me, I have found my passion, and am able to pursue it, just like anyone else. I use mainstream technology in the form of an iPhone, a Mac, and software like Final Cut Pro, Twitter, YouTube and email to make my contribution.

“The way I access my devices is via an accessibility feature called Switch Control which is built into all Apple devices. Because Switch Control allows me to access these devices, I am really no different to any other person.”

Image of Christopher Hills
Christopher Hills works from his desk. Image: ABC

Hills told Which-50 there is a trend of mainstream companies putting more effort into the accessibility of their technology.

“I think this trend is one of the most exciting things because it levels the playing field. Because I am able to access these devices I am able to run my own business as a video editor and technology consultant and interact with the digital world.

“I have recently moved into my own house where all the lights, air-conditioning and doors are accessible to me via a single switch using the Home app on my iPhone.”

The trend has been slower in Australia, however, Hills says, and perceptions of accessibility are struggling to keep pace with fast moving technology.

“I think there is a thought that people with disabilities have to use specialised technology and services when, in fact, more and more this isn’t the case, as mainstream digital accessibility expands.

“There are many professionals and service-providers who are not keeping up and are recommending obsolete solutions.”

Hills says large scale social programs like the NDIS could help people keep up and he looks forward to future advances in technology and the blurring of lines between accessible technology and the mainstream market.

Today is the eighth annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

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