Monday, April 27, 2015

Accessibility of Information Systems

 Last school semester I was working for a course on Information Systems at the University of Toronto. I delivered a guest lecture, Accessibility and Information Systems, that highlights the various issues, benefits, and resources for practitioners to consider to make their info system (whether it is a website, mobile app, self-serve kiosk, etc) more accessible to people of various abilities.

As one who lives and works in the province of Ontario, I'm very proud of the work my government has done to encourage and regulate accessibility through Ontario’s Integrated Accessibility Standards. What we are doing in Ontario can really provide a role model for other jurisdictions.

You can access my speaker notes via the "Options" button on the bottom of the Google Slides' player. I"ll highlight my key points below, however. 

Introducing Accessibility
 My background and interests are in designing and understanding digital user experiences. I believe that for everyone to be able to enjoy and benefit from digital media, it should be accessible to them. Accessibility, put simply, means that people can access – that is find and use – information or resources. Accessibility, in the context of this discussion, refers to the availability of resources  and services to people regardless of their abilities. People can be blocked by barriers based on: vision, hearing, mobility, motor control, cognitive or learning ability, mental health, and other factors.

The problematic issue of accessibility, particularly in regards to info systems, has created a gulf known as the “disability divide”. The disability divide draws upon the concept of the digital divide, wherein the world is increasingly divided between those who have access to Internet and those who do not. As the ability to use the Internet is required for more aspects of life, this inaccessibility further prevents disabled people from greater societal participation.

Approximately 1 in 7 Ontarians identified as disabled = 1.85 million people. That figure is expected to rise to 1 in 5 people by the year 2036 as our population agesDisabilities may not be readily apparent. The number of people affected by accessibility is much greater when one considers that it pertains to those with permanent conditions, temporarily disabled (e.g., broken arms), situationally disabled (e.g. loud environments preventing hearing audio), and those with diminishing capacity (e.g., elderly).

Social Considerations
Studies reveal the tremendous impact Internet access can have on disabled people. Researchers have also studied homebound elderly and disabled people before and after getting Internet access, and they found using the Internet decreased feelings of isolation and depression. Also, online shopping was found to reduce mobility disability.

Legal Requirements
Ontario has a recent law regarding accessibility, but even before this law inaccessibility was considered prohibited discrimination across Canada due to our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act or AODA was passed in 2005 with the goal of making Ontario accessible for people with disabilities by 2025. The regulations apply to people who live, work, or do business in Ontario. Where the rules will be most enforced will be in regards to businesses, government, and education. If you are working for a company now with over 20 employees your company must have submitted last year to the Ontario government a report on how the company is working towards accessibility.

There are other reports and actions due in the coming years. The Ontario government has a Accessibility Compliance Wizard that walks one through compliance issues with a calendar of key dates.

 If you aren’t living or working in Ontario, you may still encounter AODA or rules like it as Ontario is being observed by other provinces and countries as an exemplar. More jurisdictions are moving forward or considering similar legislation.

Business Reasons:
Implementing accessibility may help you increase your company's reach or access new markets. For example, Good Grips kitchen utensils were designed for arthritis but are widely popular for their ease and comfort of use.  Other examples include screen readers developed for blind people but great for motorists. Accessible info systems may also improve interoperability and performance, optimizing for search engines, and demonstrate corporate responsibility.

 As you are studying and working in various information fields, you will encounter accessibility in various different products and services. Implementing accessibility can seem like a lot to do and may seem like it is difficult to know where to start. The first step should be knowing your audience or customers. Know what their needs are and then work to achieve this goal first. You can learn about your audience through informal data (e.g. customer service reports) or formal research via surveys or focus groups.

In 1997, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced the formation of its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The WAI was a collaborative effort from industry, advocacy organizations, disability specialists, and academia. Their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was released in 1999 and updated into a second version 2008. It is the second version known as WCAG 2 that is in use today. Despite criticism, WCAG is the leading international standard and the basis of international policy and law, including US’ Section 508, AODA, and an ISO standard. 

If you will be developing hardware or software, IBM guidelines are among the most recognized. For those working with a specific disability group, such as autism or epilepsy, there are disability specific guidelines that go beyond the others.

Accessibility Experts
 Due to AODA accessibility experts and consultants are proliferating now, but be careful. Hiring outside consultants who specialize in web accessibility can be a solution.  Yet, with any field where a client is not able to judge the quality of an expert’s work, it is possible for experts to abuse their position. So check a consultant’s past work and references first.

As people increasingly integrate online activities into their lives, a digital, disability divide exists between those who can and cannot access online content. Alterations to design and code can remove barriers that otherwise lock disabled people out of participation. As information professionals it is up to us to do our best to remove the disability divide.

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