Digital accessibility: Making sure technology works for everyone
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Digital accessibility: Making sure technology works for everyone

Digital accessibility: Making sure technology works for everyone

Accessibility needs to be integrated into all induction training, carefully tailored to the new employee’s role, whether it be design, development or programme management

Digital accessibility

The UAE leads the world in several arenas. The government’s willingness to face down societal issues with clear-eyed decisiveness has led to a society that is envied and set as a benchmark by regional peers. For example, a series of federal laws and resolutions lays the groundwork for what is repeatedly referred to as “an inclusive society”, and prohibits discriminatory actions with regard to care or employment for people of determination. In this instance, the UAE is reacting to a global issue with compassion and vision. The World Bank tells us that around one billion people worldwide — that’s one in every seven — live with some form of disability and are more likely to experience “adverse socioeconomic outcomes” than others. The UAE is laser-focused on ensuring that its citizens and residents do not experience such outcomes.

The importance of ‘accessibility for all’ is well established in the physical world. Visit just about any building in the UAE and you will find a ramp available for people in a wheelchair or who have trouble climbing stairs. The pandemic dialled up discussions on diversity and inclusion in the real world and with a greater reliance on technology, those that deliver digital experiences have also begun to understand that there are many reasons to increase accessibility options in the digital world.

The economic argument
Countries such as the UAE have formalised this morality into regulatory frameworks, many of which include clauses on digital accessibility based around W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). But complying with these principles is now widely seen not just as a moral or regulatory imperative, but as a competitive advantage. The fact that many devs go beyond WCAG shows they are looking at accessibility models as natural extensions of usability. True usability includes everyone — something that WCAG, as it currently stands, does not guarantee. Devs do this because they know that happier, more productive users and employees is, and always has been, the end game. Reach more people, command more market share. So, if good ethics and sound governance cannot deliver accessibility, economics will.

So important is this issue, that digital businesses are now setting up their own dedicated digital accessibility programmes. These initiatives tackle how to adapt the accessibility principles used in the design of physical environments — ramps, for example — for use in the digital realm. Many amazing technologies are in service, but solutions can be partial or may not interface well with one another. While they may appear complete to someone who will never use them, they may be a source of frustration to those that do. Design principles from the real world — such as ambidextrous scissors — must be ported and applied to websites, shopping carts, productivity software, social media, and entertainment.

A good rule of thumb in any sustainable design is to push back against incremental improvements in favor of core functions that serve the needs of everybody. Accessibility features as add-ons can help in the short term but lead to complicated learning curves over time, not to mention the associated maintenance issues for development teams. A comprehensive, platform-first approach ticks most boxes. It will accommodate Braille keypads, screen readers, eye-tracking technology, voice to text, and sign language. It will enable an inclusive workplace that does not discriminate regarding work location or disability.

Second nature
It is telling that the World Bank used the word “socioeconomic” to describe the daily barriers faced by people of determination. Those living with disabilities have often had to devise their own means of navigating obstacles when society at large has fallen short. Because of their history of problem solving, feedback from these users can be of immense value to designers of digital experiences and workflows. The single best way to get this feedback is to have people with disabilities on the design, development, and QA teams that build accessible experiences, on the customer success teams that track the public perception of apps, and on the marketing teams that build the narratives around products.

Accessibility needs to be integrated into all induction training, carefully tailored to the new employee’s role, whether it be design, development, or programme management. Accessibility must become second nature if we are to build the kind of society envisioned by UAE government leaders. Once we reach the mature phase of our accessibility journey, we will have embedded the concept into every step of the software development lifecycle, and we will be continually monitoring what works and what does not. At this stage, we will have learned to put the right people into positions where their insights can do the most good. We will document our innovations and missteps, we will train our teams, and train them again, until everyone lives and breathes accessibility.

We must find our way to a more equitable and inclusive workforce. We must think of the world as others navigate it and imagine how to plug the experience gaps between the one billion who suffer from a disability and those that do not. People of determination have long overcome those gaps on their own. Let all of us who build the digital world show the same determination to make it, in the words of the UAE government, “an inclusive society”.

Mark Ackerman is the area VP – Middle East and Africa at ServiceNow

Read: GB Talks: In conversation with Cathy Mauzaize, VP and general manager, EMEA South, ServiceNow

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