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From The Experts: Global Digital Accessibility Developments During COVID-19

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Robin is Head of Digital Inclusion and part of the globally-acclaimed accessibility and tech team of AbilityNet and has spoken at numerous events in recent …
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Robin Christopherson MBE, Head of Digital Inclusion at UK tech experts AbilityNet, has been hosting a series of monthly webinars with senior accessibility guests from global brands such as Microsoft and ATOS, and UK giants like Barclays and Sainsbury’s. They’re talking COVID, the challenges and opportunities the crisis brings, agile adjustments, digital inclusion and much, much more. Want food for thought from global experts in inclusion? Key takeaways to help plan ahead? Read on.

What impact has COVID-19 had on companies across the UK and beyond? I’ve been hosting a series of monthly webinars with senior accessibility guests from global brands such as Microsoft and ATOS, and UK giants like Barclays and Sainsbury’s. We’ve been talking Covid, the challenges and opportunities the crisis brings, agile adjustments, digital inclusion and much, much more.

Top Tips From The Experts

Visit our website for this evolving series of webinars for full interviews and transcripts, but in this article, I’ve brought together the top tips on Covid challenges and opportunities covered by my guests to date. Let’s start with the Chief Accessibility Officer (CAO) at Microsoft.

Jenny Lay-Flurrie (Microsoft)

Photo of Jenny Lay-FlurrieThe very fact that Microsoft has a CAO — an accessibility lead at C-level — demonstrates its commitment to accessibility (AKA ‘Digital inclusion’. Follow the accessibility guidelines and you end up with a product that is inclusive and easier to use by all.) Importantly (in my opinion) Jenny also has ‘lived experience’ of disability.

Jenny began by emphasising the priority that all companies should place in digital inclusion;

“It’s never been more important to think about accessibility during these times. I think while accessibility’s clearly been a priority for Microsoft… the limelight the pandemic has put on the need for Access has been pretty humbling and one hell of a learning journey.”

Jenny is deaf and has, before Covid, always been accompanied by an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter. Since that first day of lockdown they’ve never been together in the same room;

“We had to learn how to work remotely. This isn’t something that we’re used to doing. We had to really learn that skill set. I will tell you that was its own journey and I think every individual has been on their journey sort of figuring out how this works.”

This is why having senior team members and decision-makers with lived experience of disability is so vital to ensure that accessibility is sufficiently and continually prioritized within your organization — and that decisions are based upon input from those who really know what both inclusion and exclusion looks like.

Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk — its free customer support service for those with disabilities — saw volumes rocket after lockdown;

“They doubled pretty much overnight. We’ve been steadily running at two to three hundred percent of volume expectations, and we’ve been running this for seven years.”

Whether you decide to provide well-signposted channels specifically for disabled customers, or whether you ensure that individuals flagging a disability to the general customer support agents are provided the level of specialist support they need, the ability of users to get answers to questions relating to alternative formats, accessibility settings or assistive technologies is crucial.

Video conferencing has obviously been one of the key technologies that has made home working possible. After lockdown, the majority of questions that Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk received were about Teams. Because Teams was already accessible, they could then go on to address additional requests (most commonly-requested was AI-powered captions) without having to scramble to retrofit inclusion that hadn’t been sufficiently prioritized pre-Covid. Jenny says;

“We’ve had a 20 year plus history with accessibility, but really our focus in the last few years of infusing it across a company stood us in good stead. It meant we have the foundation so that we could lift quicker. So yeah, it’s been one heck of a ride and, my gosh, very humbling.
“I think there’s a pull, a natural human pull to go back to the way it was. I actually don’t think that is possible anymore. I think from a technology perspective, it’s definitely driven a ton of innovation and I think that there’s risks with that.”

She goes on to highlight the challenge associated with disabled employees working from home without physical support on-hand;

“If you do put out something that’s inaccessible, the impact is far more profound because you, for example, don’t have the ability to just grab a pair of eyes. I don’t have the ability to grab a sign language interpreter and understand a video if it doesn’t have captions.”

Raised hand icon on display in Microsoft Teams
A raised hand icon on Microsoft Teams (Large preview)

Accessibility has always driven innovation in digital products — and Covid has prioritized their implementation. Many of the new features in Teams, for example, were driven by a strategy of inclusion. Something as simple as hand raise (which lets the host see that you’re waiting to ask a question) was included after feedback from users experiencing anxiety around when to interrupt the conversation — but as a result had significant benefits for those with disabilities or impairments. Jenny says,

“That’s got really cool implications for cognitive neurodiversity, let alone deafness and other disabilities … With every scenario like this one you do get an innovation boost.”

A big thanks to Jenny for her insights into how an inclusion agenda has both benefitted Microsoft and its customers around the world during the Covid crisis and beyond.

Now let’s turn to the ever-so-slightly important issue of accessible banking…

Paul Smyth (Barclays)

Photo of Paul SmythPaul Smyth is a fellow MBE recipient, and founder and leader of Digital Accessibility at UK retail bank; Barclays. It goes without saying that effective access to online banking is very important and, during this period of the pandemic, absolutely essential. Imagine the impact of delivering those services in a way that excludes around 20% of your customers — and in a way that often makes it harder for the other 80% too. A commitment to accessibility and providing sufficient support to disabled and vulnerable customers is key.

Paul chose to focus first on supporting disabled and vulnerable customers:

“I always thought that accessible customer service comes down to three things; offering flexibility, choice and personalization. I think now, in this Covid crisis, there’s maybe two more things that are important for brands to respond to; about being responsive and being responsible … and again making sure they can do their banking how, where and when they want.”

At the onset of lockdown, the use of cash and branches reduced significantly. Barclays proactively reached out to all disabled and otherwise vulnerable customers, outlined extra support and services available, made sure that those customers were fast-tracked when they used phone banking along with NHS workers, and elected to provide specialist support through their main number and not a special one “buried away”. Both this approach and that of Microsoft to provide a specific support line for disabled customers are valid — the main thing is that people can easily find out about the channel and easily find the information and support they need when using it.

Barclays also put in place some very practical measures aimed at bridging the absence of ‘hands-on’ support that vulnerable customers may experience during the pandemic. These included contactless wearables, that the customer could top up for family or friends to then take to do their shopping without having to give them their credit or debit card, as well as ’Cash to the Doorstep’ for those who are shielding. Finally, Barclays reviewed its talking ATMs to confirm that user journeys spoke well for blind and visually impaired customers.

Image of a man standing at a cashpoint
A Barclays ATM (Image source) (Large preview)

Paul then turned to digital banking. He confirmed that millions more are now using its website and app to do online banking.

“For many of those customers that are quite new to digital and being forced to do it, it’s great that we have our main website and app that you know are accessible — they’re accessibility accredited by AbilityNet. We’re serious and committed about that, we go to great pains to make sure they’re [ATMs] are technically accessible and we do disabled user testing to give a great experience for a greater number of people.”

Barclays has also seen a massive increase in features such as cheque imaging to process and pay a cheque using your mobile’s camera. To help all customers get to grips with these novel new capabilities, Barclays has also created simple guides for those new to digital, on how to use and get the most out of their online and mobile services. Being simple, and inclusive, they will be accessible and understandable to the broadest possible audience.

Paul also had much to say on Barclays’ response to Covid when it comes to its employees. For those with a disability, they were quick to duplicate at home any assistive kit needed at work. As lockdown went on, they had a ten-fold increase in similar requests from other employees without an impairment and, as a result of needing to process the needs of those with disabilities, were then more readily able to put into place scalable solutions for the broader workforce — getting ergonomic chairs and monitors out in volume. They didn’t take a reactive role, however, but proactively invited requests for equipment driven by awareness campaigns.

With regards to transitioning back to the workplace:

“We ensured that diverse voices of all employees were canvassed in terms of how and when they might return to the office, rather than relying on the decisions of senior leaders in their spacious smart home offices.”

Paul also flagged that more socially-distanced workspaces going forward might have advantages for disabled employees, such as better wheelchair access and lower noise levels.

He concludes;

“So it’s really important that we amplify the voices of the disability community in particular as well as people with a whole wide range of backgrounds, to make sure we’re going in eyes wide open to review the ways we’re going to be working from home and the tools that everybody needs to succeed, as well as how the offices of the future are also going to be slightly different from what we have now.”

A huge thanks to Paul for some really practical and impactful tips on what prioritizing inclusion looks like in practice. Now let’s turn to a truly global tech giant…

Neil Milliken (ATOS)

Photo of Neil MillikenNeil Milliken is Global Head of Accessibility at ATOS, host of AXS Chat and winner of the 2019 Business Disability Forum award. We got started by talking about the shift to home working and how this was handled in such a massive organisation as ATOS. As an early adopter of flexible work patterns, ATOS were well-prepared for the shift to home working:

“As an organization, we were actually doing flexible working quite some time ago, so it’s been really quite good for us in that we were fairly well prepared, not just technologically, because we had the set‑up to enable people to work from home, but in terms of organizational mindset. Because actually a lot of the stuff about working from home isn’t about the technology. It’s about trust. It’s about understanding and allowing your employees to work on their own without micromanaging and seeing them. That said, you know, we still need to make sure that all of the accessibility features work on remote. We need to make sure that people have suitable environments to work in, and that’s problematic if people are working from home.”

Neil emphasized the importance of virtual face-to-face contact, but also warned of overload:

“I think there is a real Zoom fatigue. I’m amazed we have people on this webinar because everybody’s doing a webinar! Me included. We have been doing AXS Chat for six years. It is great to turn the video on to get the visual cues from someone. As a very visual person, that lag between what is being said and the microsecond delay actually puts a fair amount of strain on you. I know that’s not relevant to you so much. But it certainly is among the dyslexic and neurodiverse community.”

As a blind person, I can still see the benefit of having my camera on so that others can get visual signals while I speak, but others may wish to have theirs off for a host of reasons including bandwidth, visual overload, self-consciousness of their appearance or background or a whole host of other personal circumstances.

Neil also talks about a proactive approach to up-skilling employees:

“We work quite closely with organizations like the International Association of accessibility professionals, as does AbilityNet, so we are both parts of the UK chapter there. I have been working with them on strategic leadership certification in accessibility.”

I couldn’t agree more with Neil here. Professionalizing accessibility within your leads and champions is an important element to ensuring an adequate level of knowledge of both guidelines and testing techniques.

He also flags the importance of identifying future accessibility champions via the apprenticeship route:

“At the other side, shifting left, in terms of not leadership, but people to deliver, we have been working on apprenticeships. It’s actually quite hard to find enough people to address the scale of the problem with the skills that we need in the market. So we determined a few years back, that we needed to grow our own skills and we started doing apprenticeships. When we found that people were interested in poaching our former apprentices, I thought maybe this is a signal that we need to go wider.”

As a result, ATOS decided to collaborate on a standardized approach to accessibility apprenticeships:

“Again, working with AbilityNet and Shell and Barclays and a consortium of other organizations, we have created this accessibility apprenticeship standard. It’s for accessibility specialists. It’s the equivalent of a foundation degree; so the first year of a degree — a Level 4 apprenticeship. That’s almost ready to go. I expect that we should be ready to have a first cohort at the beginning of next year… all being well, because Covid is definitely throwing a spanner into the works with things right now.”

Lastly, let’s hear from another company delivering a key service during Covid; Sainsbury’s.

Bryn Anderson (Sainsbury’s)

Photo of Bryn AndersonBryn Anderson, formerly of SiteImprove, is now an accessibility specialist at Sainsbury’s and a key part of its on-going mission to be market-leaders in digital inclusion in the retail sector. Himself disabled, he flags how digital inclusion shot to the top of the agenda during lockdown:

“I’m visually impaired, born with albinism and certainly I did not identify as someone who was disabled, which was a lot down to my parents … but I find myself identifying with it more and more. Especially during the pandemic, it really carried weight. And the topic, accessibility, disability, it was really mainstream. We were having tech huddles and digital huddles of hundreds of people. 600 people on the calls and accessibility and disability are at the top of the agenda. So incredible in that respect but it does not mean that people understand it, right? …Just because it is being talked about, does not mean that everyone understands it.”

I think Bryn’s point here is key. Even though it’s crucial to get buy-in for digital inclusion at the highest level — with the protection of time and resources required to ensure it’s achievable and maintainable in the long-term — it still takes a concerted effort for all those who are involved in digital in any way to get to grips with what inclusive design looks like in their role and daily tasks. Moreover, it’s vital that they hear first-hand from disabled colleagues or guest customers to have the confidence that their interpretation of the accessibility guidelines is appropriate. Don’t do accessibility in a vacuum — involve those with lived experiences and make sure this approach is formalized and frictionless — not ad-hoc and erratic.

I asked Bryn whether Sainsbury’s’s long-standing prioritization of accessibility helped it during Covid:

“If we take the business as a whole, we were well-prepared in that a lot of people understand what inclusion and accessibility is. Our drivers, pre-Covid, would make exceptions for people, help to carry shopping on the delivery front, and like you mentioned, we have had an accessibility agenda for some time.”

And it seems that Covid has thrown a new focus on the importance of ensuring that its products are accessible and reflect a user’s preferences:

“I was reporting on iOS statistics in the build-up to Covid about font scaling … what is the percentage of sessions completed with a larger font setting? It was 30% of the iOS sessions, which is huge, right? So, that knowledge is there. So we knew that, actually, I beg your pardon, it was 27, it went up to 30 through March, April and May which is also interesting.”

Sainsbury’s app on a smartphone
Sainsbury’s shopping app (Image credit: Mark Gaddes at AbilityNet) (Large preview)

Bryn continues:

“But the other piece, the biggest piece — and I think companies like Sainsbury’s have a massive opportunity here, like Microsoft as well and other large corporates — to really utilize the workforce to leverage their voice as people with disabilities. We know that a huge amount of our workforce (we have 190,000 employees) have impairments. There is a lot of grassroots stuff. A lot happens at that level.”

He goes on to say how important it is to bring those voices together in a way that ensures they are evaluated and acted upon. Called the Enable Network, it comprises colleagues with disabilities at every level within the organization.

“We have people in logistics talking to designers in my team about colleague applications, for example. It gives people a voice, it raises awareness and of course, the most important thing, which is the education piece … You can talk theoretically about someone with a cognitive impairment or dyslexia, but when someone with dyslexia says ‘I tried to do this on your application, it does not work,’ that is where the education happens.”

I asked Bryn about how best to ensure that you can utilize the experience of this wonderfully diverse workforce without it clashing with their day-jobs:

“I think that the reason it can exist in a business is because you have a policy, and you have the initiative from the top-down in the first place. It is hard to do that guerrilla-style underground revolution approach. So everything, every time we have a meeting, every time we connect a colleague to a colleague, it is under the banner of: We want to be the most inclusive retailer where people want to work and shop. So you better turn up!”

We briefly talked about the role of an automated accessibility checking solution (software that can scan a website and highlight a portion of those accessibility errors present) and if it will ever be able to do a full accessibility audit of a website;

“We build and maintain the Sainsbury’s design system which is called Luna. We built a dashboard that monitors a few pages of each of our main customer-facing brands. Obviously, I will caveat that by saying automation is great for doing top of the funnel stuff, but … it can’t test if every task can be completed with a keyboard, for example, so I think we are a long way from that.”

Bryn goes on to warn of organizations that claim to take care of accessibility for you:

“I don’t want to name names but there are solutions out there saying that this sort of remediation solution where: We will bring you 100% compliance, you only have to pay £1,000 a month — whatever. Completely limited solutions … band-aid solutions. There is nothing clever about them.”

It’s true. There’s no shortcut to accessibility — but with some effort, education, and prioritization we see the results.

Lastly, I asked about the challenge of ensuring that inclusive design comes from the content creators and developers, rather than retrofitting, where the onus and responsibility shifts from the people that are developing the solutions to those who must patch and repair accessibility where possible:

“There are too many cooks in the whole process. That is one of the biggest problems. Not everyone has the same level of knowledge … it is a huge challenge and a huge education piece for all of the parts of the system that accessibility touches so, ironically, it is hard to be inclusive without a specialist at the moment.”

It’s true. As we’ve heard from my other guests above, accessibility issues touch every department and every role to some extent — and yet, until it is taught as a standard part of every digital worker’s role, it will require champions with additional knowledge to be actively involved. That’s a tough ask across an organization of the size of Sainsbury’s (or indeed ATOS, Barclays or Microsoft) but these amazing organizations are definitely giving it the priority and resources it deserves.

Some Straightforward Steps To Better Websites

Accessibility can be a daunting topic if you’re just beginning to get to grips with it. Let’s finish off by looking at some simple, straightforward steps to get you started — for websites at least.

These five tips will make your site slicker and better to use for a wider audience and will help you meet your obligations under the Equality Act 2010.

1. Hide Your Mouse To Check Keyboard Accessibility

Making your site accessible without using a mouse is a legal requirement and something that will benefit many of your visitors. People with little vision rely on keyboard access as they cannot easily see the mouse cursor on the screen. Sighted users with motor difficulties such as Parkinson’s or a stroke can find keyboard access simpler as well.

Just by hiding your mouse and trying to access your site and all its options with only a keyboard can show how you’re doing and how to improve this. In particular, make sure that a visible focus indicator is always present (preferably a highly visible one), ie, so it is very obvious where your mouse or cursor is at any given time. Also make sure that there is a logical focus order around the page, ie that the page is set up in a way that doesn’t mean screenreaders or other technology jump all over the page and don’t make sense to all users.

2. Avoid Poor Contrast

Everyone finds low contrast text difficult to read, particularly people with low vision. Use a contrast checking tool such as Tanaguru’s Contrast Finder, this allows you to enter two different colors and check the contrast between them. It can also suggest alternatives if the colors have insufficient contrast. Alternatively, a color picker tool like the Contrast Analyser from the Paciello Group will help.

Hint: Trust your eyes too — it can be simple to spot offending text colors by eye, and then just verify them with the tool. This is best used early in the design process, so that issues can be addressed before the site goes live.

3. Do A Free Accessibility Check

The organization WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) provides a free, automated, online checker here. This can give you quick feedback on some more technical issues on your website, e.g. if forms are correctly marked up with labels. This is a great way to highlight issues during the development process. Be aware that any automated testing can only cover a small subset of all possible accessibility issues. However, it is a valuable technique when used alongside manual testing.

4. Provide An Accessibility Page

An accessibility page is often an opportunity for organizations to state what measures they have taken to make their site accessible. You can also use this page to let people get in touch with any difficulties they experience while using your site. (See AbilityNet’s accessibility page for an example.)

Getting feedback from people visiting your site is very valuable. By making it easier for users to feedback to you directly, you will benefit greatly by both demonstrating your commitment to improving your site, and being able to respond to individual issues as they arise.

5. Content Is King: Know Your Audience

People come to websites to find information, or to carry out an action. It makes sense to make this process as easy as possible for people. Know your expected audience, and write copy accordingly. Using financial jargon may be fine for visitors with a financial background, but other users may miss out. Good practice is to avoid jargon, or if it is necessary, provide a glossary.

Make use of headings, paragraphs, and bulleted lists to break text up into meaningful sections. Make one key point per paragraph. Use different methods to convey information. Some users will prefer to read content, others will benefit from a video, others prefer a simplified, or illustrated guide.

Covid: More Opportunity Than Challenge

In conclusion, it looks like Covid has brought organizations to a realization that now, more than ever, is the time to embrace accessibility and ensure that products are usable by all; all your customers and all your employees. Your organization can also benefit from the digital inclusion bonus by following some of the approaches outlined above.

So, how’s your organization doing? Are you proactively and systematically benefitting from your diverse employees and customers — or are your accessibility efforts ad hoc and uninformed? Do you distribute the responsibility for digital inclusion across departments, or do you rely on an isolated team without the reach or authority to make a real impact? Are you prioritizing accessibility early and putting the right tools and training in place — or are you choosing to reactively retrofit inclusion?

If you’re not sure about the answers to any of the above and you’d like to be stepped through the process of evaluating the level of accessibility that currently exist within your organization’s digital properties, policies, processes, and practices — and systematically assisted in compiling a roadmap to compliance — then organizations such as AbilityNet can help.

At present, only a vanishingly small proportion of websites are accessible and legally compliant. As a disabled person myself, I am only too acutely aware of what digital exclusion means to those shut out of online services. Some of these services (like food shopping, banking or video conferencing) will be vital to survival and employment during this unprecedented time of pandemic and isolation. Others, arguably less essential, will nevertheless immeasurably add to our quality of life. Let’s learn from the mega-brands who have chosen to be inclusive, and let’s help make everyone’s life a little better during Covid and beyond.

AbilityNet’s digital accessibility experts can offer advice about how to improve your website’s accessibility. Visit the AbilityNet website for more information.

Further Resources

If you’ve found this article useful, here are a few more I’ve written recently on related topics:

You can read all my articles on the power of tech and inclusion on the AbilityNet website.

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