Bridging the Digital Divide: Technology and Accessibility for People with Disability

Many Not for Profits with older websites will have to work hard to ensure that they are fully accessible to people with disability, writes CEO of the Diversity Council Australia, Lisa Annese.

We don’t need the Federal Government’s recent Innovation Statement that said advances in technology are transforming just about every part of our lives, from the way we work to the way we communicate and access services. It’s obvious and we are living it daily.

However advances in technology are also transforming the lives of people with a disability enabling more participation in things that were previously precluded from them, including many workplaces and other life activities.

The move towards societal inclusion for such individuals has a radical positive impact on people with a disability. However even though new technology products and services continue to expand at a seemingly exponential rate, accessibility isn’t always built in – and this is problematic.

There are compelling reasons why businesses should be embracing web-based, mobile and desktop technology that is accessible for people with a disability. As our population ages, the number of people living with disability will also increase. While some types of disability are acquired at birth or early in life, others can be the result of accident, illness, injury and the process of ageing throughout life. Disability rates increase substantially as people get older. Vision and hearing, for example, generally deteriorate with age. Up to 40 per cent of people will have some form of disability by the time they are 70 years old.

By making web-based products and services more readily available to those that have a visual, hearing or physical impairment, organisations have the opportunity to grow their share of an expanding market. This is both socially progressive and financially rewarding.

Moreover, offering a workplace that is accessible to people with a disability – through accessible technology and other forms of accessibility – will expand an organisation’s talent pool by enabling access to some of the most productive, motivated and loyal potential employees.  

At a recent Diversity Council of Australia (DCA) workshop focussing on disability and the workplace, Sean Murphy, Compliance Accessibility Software Engineer at Cisco, outlined some of the common barriers to accessible technology for web based products.

These include:

  • a lack of proper keyboard navigation to move logically through a software product by using  the tab and shift+tab keys

  • information overload, where pages are overly busy without clear distinctions

  • excessive graphic interface, where screen readers are unable to identify and describe illustrative elements on a page

  • use of Flash technology that excludes best practises to support screen readers

  • poorly designed pages that do not consider contrast and colouring are also barriers for people with low vision or colorblindness.

Murphy recommends that international accessibility standards, as outlined by the Web Accessibility Initiative should be implemented at the design stage of website development.  This is much simpler and more cost effective than trying to retrofit accessibility later.

Testing for proper accessibility is also essential and should be carried out by someone who actually has a disability; people with standard vision and dexterity will inevitably test differently to someone with a disability.

Many Not for Profits with older web-based platforms will have some work to do ensure greater accessibility. In this regard, DCA is working with the assistance of Cisco and our website provider, Yump, to redesign the DCA website so it is more accessible as well as optimised for mobile and tablet use.

DCA is also sharing more information with member organisations in order to encourage them to do the same. There are many useful resources to help with the process of ensuring greater accessibility. Some of these include:

  • Media Access Australia

  • Australian Human Rights Commission

  • Australian Network on Disability

  • Vision Australia Digital Access

In this internet-dominated era, equitable access to information must take into consideration the diversity of web users, as well as the ways people use the internet. But beyond the equity argument, there is also a strong business case for inclusion of people with a disability in technology. Organisations that do both will be well placed to capture the benefits.

About the author: Lisa Annese has been CEO of Diversity Council Australia since June 2014.


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