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Dr Scott Hollier - Digital Access Specialist Posts

Top 5 reasons why online voting is essential for people with disabilities

If you live in Australia, its highly likely that you’re aware of the upcoming marriage equality postal vote – or plebiscite – or household survey – to be held later this year. For the benefit of international readers, Australia is currently in the midst of a same-sex marriage debate, and the best way to progress it has been a hotly debated topic both in an out of parliament for several years. it is now most likely the process will be completed via a postal survey.  

If you read through the news items and social media posts on the topic, it’s certainly fair to say the whole process is somewhat controversial. Issues currently being discussed include whether it’s necessary to spend $AUD122 million on the process given its non-binding, whether the process is needed at all when polls consistently show two-thirds of Australians are in favour of marriage equality, and whether the use of a postal vote will unfairly skew the results in favour of older Australians given most people under the age of 25 have probably never physically put a letter of theirs in a post box.   

While all these issues are important, the one that concerns me the most is that people with disabilities may not have the opportunity to have their say at all due to the unfortunate return to the use of inaccessible print media.

It is highly ironic that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the government department given the responsibility for running the postal survey, felt that so many Australians now favour online as a means for completing government information requests that the last Census was held online for the first time. While the census didn’t exactly go according to plan due to crashes and alleged cyberattacks, it did highlight that completing such requests online is the preferred method for both government and the general public. Furthermore, many core government services including Centrelink, Medicare and the Australian Tax Office now put a heavy focus on accessing information online through the MyGov portal, again putting forward the argument that interacting with government services online is the best way to go.

So why then do we continue to see a return to archaic forms of voting such as postal votes that focus on the use of paper? Even during general elections, the emphasis is still on confirming your registration in a printed book and filling out a ballot form on paper. It seems that the reason for this is a combination of legislative restrictions and tradition. While I appreciate that the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ model may hold up for some, my argument here is that the system is broken for people with disabilities, and we have the technology to fix it, so it’s about time that we did.

With that in mind, here are my top five reasons for why it is essential that people with disabilities are given the opportunity to vote online.

1.    Accessibility

The most significant reason why all voting opportunities should go online is due to accessibility. The technical issues in the last Australian Census overshadowed the fantastic reality that for the first time, people with disabilities were able to independently participate in the completion of the Census form using the assistive technology of their choice. The website was largely compliant to the WCAG 2.0 standard meaning it worked well for most people with disabilities. As such, barriers relating to the printed version of the Census were no longer an issue which included the print being too small for people with low vision, completely inaccessible questions to people who were blind, and difficult-to-read questions for people that had cognitive disabilities. The Census demonstrated that it is possible to have an accessible online portal that can gather information on a national scale, so there’s not much of a technical argument that a similar process could not be used for voting.  

2.    Improves accuracy and security

As a legally blind person, it is an uncomfortable reality that the easiest way for me to vote will be to ask someone I trust to help me fill out the form. While I’m fortunate to have a number of people around me that are likely to respect my wishes, there’s no guarantee that this will be the case and I have no way to check if the form is filled out correctly. With the right security checks, an online voting system could ensure that I am who I say I am and that my vote is as I intended. This is already the case with sensitive government information relating to payments, health and tax so there’s no reason why such checks can’t be carried out in a voting context. The process could even be connected to the secure MyGov account as a way of crossing my name off the electoral roll.

3.    Easier to complete

In the last Federal election, I was surprised when I received the Senate ballot paper as it seemed to be as long as an unravelled toilet roll and printed in micro-font. Compare the process of filling this out with an online system whereby you can make the text as large as you need it to be in the colours most comfortable for your eyes, or even have it read out to you with an input method of your choice. Many people with disabilities already have their home computer, smartphone or tablet optimised for their needs so completing the voting process through this method is not only accessible but much easier.

Furthermore, providing the ability to complete a voting process online removes the need to travel to a polling place, a task often challenging for people with disabilities who may not be able to drive or are unfamiliar with a polling location.

4.    Removes the need for specialist solutions

In response to the postal survey backlash from organisations such as Blind Citizens Australia and Media Access Australia, the ABS have now agreed that there will be some form of telephone system for people who are blind to complete the marriage equality survey. While this is great news, there are few details at this time about how the process will work and ultimately it seems like a backwards step whereby one government department announces a postal survey followed by another government department scrambling to figure out how to make it work for people who are blind. Online voting removes the need to create yet another process just for people with disabilities and streamlines the process for everyone.

5.    Cheaper

If the four arguments above haven’t convinced you that online voting is the way to go, I’m hoping that the significantly reduced cost that online voting brings will be a good motivator in changing your opinion. Returning to the Census again, a factor in it going online was so the ABS didn’t have to spend so much money on paper, or staff to distribute and collect it. If the process moves online then it becomes cheaper. It also removes the cost of specialist solutions and has the added bonus of making it much easier to tally the votes at the end as its already stored electronically.

It’s my opinion that the right to vote in any country is a privilege and something that I take seriously as part of a citizen of this country. While issues and elections will come and go, the fundamental right to independently participate in them is absolutely critical. It’s my hope that the next time the government requests my opinion on an issue I’m able to provide it without the help of a third party.  

Digital access in Vietnam – a great experience

I recently had the privilege to spent a week in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam as a guest of the RMIT Vietnam Centre of Digital Excellence (CODE) for a combination of presentations, events and a workshop, highlighting the strong commitment of RMIT Vietnam in making accessibility happen.  Scott presenting a workshop at InSITE 2017

Scott running a workshop at InSITE 2017

The primary reason for my visit was to present a three-hour workshop titled ‘Exploring the web in different ways’ as part of the InSITE 2017 conference hosted by RMIT Vietnam. The workshop had about 60 people in attendance and all had an opportunity to experience the use of a screen reader on their own device, assess web content for its accessibility and interact with a digital assistant such as the Amazon Echo Dot. Participants in the workshop were very positive about the experience, providing feedback that the activities were both fun and informative, leading to an increased awareness of how people with different abilities engage with their content. 

Scott in front of RMIT Vietnam sign

Scott at the RMIT Vietnam campus

Other events at RMIT Vietnam included a presentation to equity students which provided an overview of my work and some highlights from my personal disability journey. The theme of the presentation focused on the power of education, technology and the great work being done by the staff in the Equitable Learning Services department. There was also a joint presentation with Dr Ruchi Permvattana from Curtin University on accessible e-learning for RMIT Vietnam learning and teaching staff.

While the RMIT Vietnam meetings, presentations and the InSITE conference workshop were all a part of my original itinerary, I was very fortunate to also visit MATA, a boarding school specifically for children who are blind or have low vision. The Director and a staff member from RMIT Vietnam very kindly took the time to bring us to the centre and show us the facilities. In addition to the school they also produce Braille books and white canes, and I was very lucky to be presented with a much-needed new white cane as a gift. I also presented a gift in the form of the audio book version of ‘Outrunning the Night’. `

MATA school children performing a Vietnamese welcome song during Scott’s visit

In conversation with the Director I was particularly struck by the great facilities and focus of the children in the school, with their dedication to learning being described as ‘Overcoming darkness through education’ – a great phrase. Shortly after my arrival the students performed a Vietnamese welcome song.  This really showcased the dedication and talents of the students in the school.

In terms of digital access broadly, it was great to see that many students both at RMIT Vietnam and MATA had an awareness of the benefits that technology can provide, along with an openness to additional improvements. For example, in my discussion with the equity students at RMIT Vietnam I happened to mention about the new accessibility features in Windows 10, and within 20 minutes a plan had been established to upgrade the computers used by the students to Windows 10 so they could use the improved features. It’s this nimble approach to access that was exciting to see and will ultimately yield significant benefits to the students studying at RMIT Vietnam.

 I’d like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank RMIT Vietnam CODE for bringing me over for the week, the opportunity to share my knowledge and experience, the InSITE conference organisers and MATA for their fantastic welcome. 

Scott to run access workshop at 2017 InSITE Conference in Vietnam

It is my great honour and privilege to update you that the RMIT Vietnam Centre Of Digital Excellence (CODE)  have invited me to present a digital access workshop at InSITE 2017: Informing Science + IT Education Conferences: Vietnam.

The conference runs from 31 July to 5 August and will feature topics related to ICT and education such as:

  • The art and science of informing clients
  • Misinforming / Misinformation and Bias in informing systems
  • Teaching and mentoring of doctoral students
  • Information Technology for Education
  • Lifelong Learning
  • eSkills and Civil Society
  • Preparing Doctoral Students
  • Post Secondary Education

My workshop will be on Wednesday 2 August titled ‘Experiencing the Web in Different Ways’. The session is described as follows:

People with disabilities experience online content in a variety of different ways.  Dr Scott Hollier will take you through some of the technologies that are used for online engagement across a range of different devices including laptops, smartphones, tablets and a digital assistant. How do these technologies help, and how will it change in the future? Find out in this practical hands-on workshop.

In addition, I’ll be spending time with the staff and students of RMIT Vietnam to provide digital accessibility advice and support, chatting about all things accessibility and my life experience as discussed in my book ‘Outrunning the Night’.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the RMIT Vietnam CODE for the invitation and sponsorship to provide the workshop and I’m very much looking forward to meeting everyone there.

 

 

Top 5 web accessibility complaints and how to address them

It’s a common scenario – you’re a web developer on a tight deadline. You think everything is pretty much wrapped up for the client until that pesky accessibility-related request crops up. It might be an unexpected need to caption a video, or perhaps it’s the need to change that cool rollover effect you spent three days mastering. Worse still, it may be that killer last-minute web accessibity check that reveals the entire project is in jeopardy resulting in long nights and budget problems as it all gets fixed up.

But does it have to be this way? If you ask a room full of accessibility specialists, the answer will be a resounding ‘no’. However, if you ask a room full of web designers and developers, the response is likely to be ‘yes, because there’s no other choice – accessibility is hard, time-consuming and expensive’.

At the risk of having other accessibility specialists grab their pitchforks and march on my place, I’m going to say that both groups are right – to a point. Web developers and other associated ICT professionals are absolutely correct in saying that accessibility can be hard, it can be time-consuming and it can be expensive. However, I’d disagree that there’s no other choice. If the key accessibity issues are incorporated into work practices, meaning that issues are addressed in the early stages of a web project, there’s no need for accessibility to be hard, time-consuming or expensive, and I base this on over a decade of experience in the field.

So, with that in mind, here’s a list of the five most common complaints web developers have raised with me about accessibility and some practical tips on how to address them.

1.    Web accessibility can be expensive – if you only consider it at the end of a project

The biggest complaint people raise with me when I run workshops and training is that web accessibility is expensive. I’d agree that if you don’t consider compliance to the current WCAG standard during the development process then this is absolutely true. However, most aspects of WCAG do not require additional work, but rather provide a different way of working. For example, adding descriptive links instead of ‘read more’ isn’t much of an effort, making sure there’s an online language declaration can be done pretty quickly and not using colour to indicate a change of context doesn’t require any effort at all.  In fairness, there are some things that may incur an extra cost such as audio describing a video so I wouldn’t say definitively that accessibility costs nothing, but if staff are trained to incorporate web accessibility into work practices, the cost will be barely noticed in the budget of a typical web project.

2.    Web accessibility is time-consuming – if you don’t learn WCAG

It’s important to acknowledge right away that while the W3C’s current WCAG standard is a really big deal to me, it only represents a small part of what web developers need to consider. As such, I’m not asking you to dedicate your life and career to the pursuit of web accessibility, but it is important to be aware of what’s in the WCAG standard and how it applies to your work. I’d estimate that about two-thirds of WCAG 2.0 Level AA, the typical implementation target, requires no noticeable extra time in their implementation, it’s more about working smarter than harder. Granted that still leaves the other third but most of those get faster with practice only leaving a few requirements by my count that actually require a bit of additional planning. The upshot is that if you can get your head around WCAG and adjust your work processes accordingly, you’ll achieve most of the standard during the normal development process and will be able to plan effectively for the additional parts such as captioning a video – which is the next point on this list.

3.    Captioning a video is a pain – unless you’re aware of all the fantastic free tools out there to help you.

It’s interesting when giving a presentation just before a big web project, going through the WCAG 2.0 At A Glance document and hearing the groans when ‘captioning a video’ is mentioned as a Level A requirement. It’s been my experience that the rest are generally considered okay – no major complaints about alternative text, no issue with colour contrast, but captioning a video is perceived to be a big job. The important thing to acknowledge is that yes, captioning a video can be a big job, but it doesn’t have to be. There are many great free tools available to help you with this work, the first being YouTube’s automated captions in which Google can caption your video for you and you can use those captions for other projects. Importantly these captions are unlikely to be 100% accurate, and depending on the audio the quality will range significantly, but what the auto-captions are able to do well is get the timing right which is half the battle. After that you can then turn to many of the other free captioning suites online, or do your captioning from scratch if the auto-captions just don’t work. My personal favourite online captioning tool is Amara.org but there’s one built into YouTube itself and WGBH’s recent tool CADET is getting great reviews as well. In the course I teach, we have a captioning assignment and most students go into it thinking it’ll be really hard work and are generally surprised at how quickly and easily captioning a video can be done with the right tools.

4.    Accessible websites can be boring and ugly – if you’re not creative enough

If I didn’t have people storming my house after my opening remarks, they probably are now. However, it is important to address this reoccurring point that ‘accessibility = boring’ or ‘accessibility = ugly’. The first point I’d make here is that WCAG was not designed to stop your creativity. In fact, the millions of people with disabilities out there that use the web want to experience your creativity, your flair and your hard work, so please don’t hold back! Secondly, there’s lots of great websites out there that demonstrate you can be creative and accessible. The BBC website is one of the most media-rich websites in the world and has everything from videos to children’s games, and has consistently done a great job in making things accessible. As mentioned previously, most of WCAG is about the way you can do things, not an extra thing to stop you doing things, so keep the creative ideas flowing so we can all enjoy them.

5.    Accessibility can affect security – until you use the techniques that give you the best of both worlds

Out of all the complaints listed, this is the one that in my opinion is the most legitimate concern. You don’t have to look too far in the news to witness cyberattacks sweeping the world, and there’s no way security should be sacrificed to make a website accessible – and I’m absolutely not asking you to do so. Security issues generally need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but what I would say is that in most cases there are accessible ways of implementing popular security mechanisms on a website.

For example, I’m often asked about CATPCHAs. I’ve recently completed some research as part of the W3C Research Questions Task Force (RQTF) and it’s pretty clear from the literature out there that traditional CAPTCHAs are no longer as effective as they used to be. As such, it’s important to consider alternatives not just for people with disabilities or people unfamiliar with the English character set but to also get something with improved security. E-mail verification, for example, is a popular alternative that is generally considered more secure and accessible.

A second example is giving people more time to complete online processes such as accessing government records. Understandably for security reasons you don’t want to leave this open to anyone for very long, but WCAG says people should have enough time. One solution is to provide a ‘+5 minutes’ button on the website. This confirms that the user is still present which addresses the security concerns, and also provides that bit of extra time needed for a person with a disability using a screen reader to complete the task. These are just two examples and in most security-related scenarios presented to me I’ve been able to find a solution that works for everyone. Furthermore, with more developments in biometrics and alternative authentication techniques it’s likely this will become even easier to address in the future.

So that’s a short overview of the five most common complaints made to me regarding accessibility and some practical tips on how to address them. If you’d like to keep up with other accessibility news you’re welcome to subscribe to my newsletter by e-mailing newsletter@hollier.info  with ‘subscribe’ in the subject line or you can follow me on Twitter @scotthollier.   

Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility featured in 2017 Knowbility Awards

The Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility (PCWA) course, co-created by Professor Denise Wood and I, has been selected as one of three finalists for an Educational Achievement Award at the  Knowbility Community Heroes of Accessibility 2017 Awards.

The awards are described by Knowbility as follows:

“For the last three years, we have asked our community to nominate their heroes – those people whose dedication to the field of accessibility is having a significant impact on improving equal access for all.”

While being a finalist for the award  is very unexpected, it’s wonderful to have the course recognised for its commitment to upskilling ICT professionals in their efforts relating to the creation of accessible content.

In 2011, Denise and I created the course in response to the release of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and the need to support ICT professionals as to how they could include accessibility in their work practices. As a result, a partnership was formed between Media Access Australia and the University of South Australia to deliver the course. Six years on and 500 graduates later, the PCWA remains  an effective tertiary-backed qualification with information on the practical implementation of web accessibility. The short course is taught online and available internationally, with enrolments from around the world.

The course structure includes information on why accessibility is important, international policy requirements, implementation of the WCAG 2.0  standard to Level AA compliance, the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0, and how to evaluate websites based on the WCAG Evaluation Methodology (WCAG-EM) 1.0.  The assignments include the use of assistive technologies, captioning a video, assessing authoring tools based on ATAG compliance, auditing websites and building a WCAG-compliant template. The course is updated before each intake with recent additions including information on the emerging WCAG 2.1 draft and the next-generation Silver guideline developments.

As Senior Lecturer for the PCWA I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Knowbility and our mystery nominee  for their recognition of the course, Such recognition would not be possible without the hard work of Lecturer Dr Ruchi Permvattana and Course Co-ordinator Jenny Webber, and the ongoing support of the course from Media Access Australia and the University of South AUstralia.

If you’d like to sign up for the course, the next intake starts in September. Details can be found at www.mediaaccess.org.au/learn.