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Dr Scott Hollier - Digital Access Specialist Posts

All Things Digital, All Things Accessible podcast series now online

I’ve recently been involved in a six-part podcast series titled ‘All Things Digital, All Things Accessible’ on VisAbility radio with host Kenneth Phua. The idea of the series was to provide listeners with an overview of how people who are blind or have low vision use popular devices, some of the interesting consumer trends such as the Internet of Things and various international developments.

If you would like to listen to the podcasts, the respective links are listed below along with the episode descriptions provided by VisAbility.

Episode 1 podcast: Dr. Scott Hollier gives us a broad view of what digital devices are and why it’s vital that accessibility should be part of the conversation. VisAbility Radio Host Kenneth and Dr. Scott talk about what accessibility is and how it benefits people with vision impairments plus some of the common misconceptions surrounding this subject.

Episode 2 podcast: Dr. Scott Hollier chats about what’s important to know when it comes to internet security for a person who has low vision or who is blind. The conversation also addresses the question of privacy protection and the considerations we need to factor in when making decisions on accepting the terms and conditions of a device or even a mobile app.

Episode 3 podcast: Dr. Scott Hollier discusses the Internet of Things. The “Internet of Things” is making its presence felt but what is it, how will it benefit us and what will the future look like with the explosion of IOT capabilities? Dr. Scott Hollier unpacks these as we talk through the main issues of an IOT world.

Episode 4 podcast: Dr. Scott Hollier ventures further out by taking a look at what developments are going to benefit the person with a vision impairment. From augmented reality and ‘wearables’ to self-drive cars, these all seem to be within reach, but will it be that simple?

Episode 5 podcast: Dr. Scott discusses the international standards that can provide assurance of quality, compatibility and perhaps pricing of all things digital and accessible. Dr. Scott Hollier offers insights from the perspectives of one who is in a position of influence on the international front of the initiative.

Episode 6 podcast: In this final episode, entitled All Your Questions Answered, we take on your questions including those about digital aids for the kitchen, robot guide dogs, self-monitoring health devices, apps for shoppers, gadgets supporting learning and more.

Many thanks to VisAbility and host Kenneth for the invitation to be involved. It was a great experience and a lot of fun.

Microsoft commits $USD25 million to AI accessibility

Microsoft has announced at their Build conference in Seattle USA that they have committed to a major accessibility initiative focused on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and accessibility.

The initiative, titled ‘AI for Accessibility’, is a new $USD25 million, five-year program designed to put AI tools in the hands of developers to accelerate the development of accessible and intelligent AI solutions.

In the announcement, Microsoft indicated that there are three specific scenarios for this project – employment, modern life and human connection.

To achieve this, Microsoft indicated that the project will focus on a combination of funding support and a corporate mentoring process, stating that:

“The AI for Accessibility program will do this in three ways. First, we will provide seed grants of technology to developers, universities, nongovernmental organizations, and inventors taking an AI-first approach focused on creating solutions that will create new opportunities and assist people with disabilities with work, life and human connections. Next, we will identify the projects that show the most promise and make larger investments of technology and access to Microsoft AI experts to help bring them to scale. And third, as we infuse AI and inclusive design across our offerings, we will work with our partners to incorporate AI innovations into platform-level services to empower others to maximize the accessibility of their offerings.”

Seeing AI app screenshotScreenshot of Seeing AI app

Recent initiatives in the space such as the Seeing AI app for iOS has received mixed reviews in its practical use, but the blind and vision impaired community broadly welcome the fact that such initiatives are taking place and that such innovations are available for free. Furthermore, the disabled community are continuing to encourage Microsoft to refine its work in this area, and make its solutions available for Android devices in addition to its iOS efforts.

Additional information can be found in the AI for Accessibility blog post.

Escaping the web accessibility island

Back by popular demand – this is an updated version of my original article which is no longer available from the original source. 

It’s a common story – you are a passionate accessibility advocate, trying to do your bit in an organisation that doesn’t seem to care. Or perhaps that’s a bit harsh – they do care, but it seems it’s only when a tender comes up that requires WCAG compliance, a complaint is made about the website, or it’s just been discovered that the app your company relies on so much is notably impossible to use with a screen reader. When a situation like this occurs, you know what’s coming next –a flustered colleague runs to your desk, screaming your name, saying, “You’re the accessibility person around here, tell me how to fix this!”

In most intakes of the Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility course that I teach, there are students who indicate they are the only person in their organisation who knows about accessibility. It often feels like they are a one-person accessibility island – the ‘goto’ person who puts out the fires relating to web accessibility, and trying to get a whole-of-organisation push is likened to banging your head on a brick wall. One student even suggested that they are more like Hawaii as there were so many people in their organisation needing the person’s help that they were effectively broken up into little pieces across different departments – either really important to everyone or not needed by anyone depending on what project was the priority at the time.

If this sounds like you, common questions you may want answered include “What can I do to share the accessibility load?”, “Should there even be a go-to person for accessibility?” and “What can I do to get organisational buy-in for digital accessibility issues?” Let’s break this down into a few key suggestions I’ve heard over the years from people who have been in this situation.

An island can be a good starting point – especially if you upskill

It may not seem like a good situation to have people running to you for accessibility advice all the time, but as a starting point it’s not such a bad thing to have a resident expert. Organisations that have no knowledge about accessibility are unlikely to support it, and probably don’t realise they need to know about it. If there’s at least one person who knows about accessibility, and others in the organisation know that you are the ‘go-to’ person, then at least you have a starting point. It’s interesting how many students come to the course I teach after becoming this person unintentionally, having picked up their knowledge originally through being self-taught, or attending a one-day workshop or an event like a meetup group or conference. If you find that you have the passion then getting some sort of formalised training can help, especially if accessibility is not your everyday role but rather something bolted on to your current work.

Specialise if you can

If you have had the opportunity to upskill and really enjoy accessibility work, see if it is possible to have accessibility become a formalised major part of your role rather than just the ‘extra thing you do’. If your manager acknowledges that accessibility is part of your skillset and not just something that people ask you about, it’s likely to help long-term being in the right place for organisational change and an authority within the organisation. Again, formalised training can help with this as it will let management know that you have the skills needed to provide appropriate accessibility advice.

Never underestimate the power of internal training and train-the-trainer

Whether your organisation is large or small, if you are the designated accessibility person either intentionally or by accident, run with it by offering to train others in your area. There’s no shortage of resources and courses available to draw on, and if you start by training up the people around you, it will cement your role as the person who can help others to incorporate accessibility techniques into their work practices, provide you with the opportunity to delegate if the accessibility requests become overwhelming. Even better, see if you can train up a select group of people who may be able to train others in different areas of the organisation.

WCAG is not just about the website

A common barrier in terms of getting accessibility taken seriously, particularly in large organisations, is an assumption that web accessibility standards such as WCAG are only relevant to an organisation’s website and the ICT professionals that look after it. Yet if accessibility is going to be truly organisation-wide, you’ll need to help explain it beyond designers and developers. For example, most people in your organisation will write documents, so which part of WCAG applies to them? Is the marketing team you work with sending out accessible emails and tweets? Ultimately, accessible content will overlap into the roles of most people, and you can help to spread the accessibility message by helping others to do the bit of accessibility that’s relevant to their role.

Ground-up is good, top-down is better

No matter how much of a groundswell of support you manage to generate for accessibility, its success will ultimately depend on how it’s perceived by senior management. Perhaps your organisation already has a strategic plan relating to disability issues that web accessibility can be added to. Perhaps such a plan does not currently exist and needs to be created. Consider what approaches or conversations need to be had with management around policy as once there’s something from senior management that you can hang the accessibity message on, it’s much easier to promote it through your organisation.

Your island is part of a continent

It may seem like you are alone in your organisation when it comes to accessibility, but it’s important to remember that your accessibility initiatives are actually part of a global community. Groups such as the WAI-IG mailing list, meetup groups, conferences and webinars arejust some of the ways you can meet people and talk through issues. I run the local accessibility meetup group in Perth and most people who attend acknowledge that it’s useful for two reasons: one is to get information on how to deal with particular situations, the other is that it’s very therapeutic to vent in company about organisational accessibility frustrations. Remember that you’re not alone in making accessibility happen, even if it feels like it is. You may be an island, but there’s a continent of resources and support close by.

So next time someone stands at your desk looking flushed due to the accessibility crises that just occurred, think of it as a teaching moment for your organisation as to why accessibility is important. While you may not directly see the outcomes of your actions, people with disabilities will.

Recording and slides for ‘seeing without light’ lecture now available

On Wednesday 18 April it was a great privilege to give a free public lecture at the University of Western Australia titled ‘The Seeing without Light: how people with disability are embracing emerging technologies’. The talk was part of the 2018 Light Talks series, “Living with and without light.” The series is presented by UWA Optical Society (OSA) student chapter and the UWA Institute of Advanced Studies.

Firstly I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who came along to listen too my presentation. It was a great night and I really enjoyed the opportunity to share the information with you.

Secondly, if you weren’t able to make it on the night or would like a recap, I’ve included a recording of the lecture on this webpage and provided a link to download the slides.

The audio recording can be streamed using the embedded player below.

You can also download the slides for the lecture using this link (PDF file).

If you have any questions you’re more than welcome to get in touch. You can do so using the details on the Contact page

It’s time to legislate against digital access discrimination in Australia

A few days ago I was alerted by a colleague as to a news item on Pro bono News titled ‘Disability Groups Call For Accessible ICT in Public Service Workplaces’.  In the news item it talks about the woefully low 3.6% employment rate of people with a disability in the Federal public service, and how much of this can be attributed to inaccessible ICT procurement policies. The argument is that if there is inaccessible equipment, including computers and websites, then it is difficult for people with a disability to stay employed in a government role.

However, what the article glosses over is that the Federal government in fact has some very good policy relating to ICT procurement for people with disability. The larger issue is why then does it not work in practice, and what can be done about it?  I thought it’d be a good time to briefly reflect on how web accessibility has been handled in government circles to date, and the desperate need to update our ancient disability discrimination laws to fix it.

WCAG? What WCAG?

The first internationally adopted standard in relation to the creation of accessible web content is generally considered to be the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0, released by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 1999.  While many countries including the USA and New Zealand legislated this standard, Australia was essentially missing in action with ad-hoc policy across the Federal government and various state governments. While there were some exceptions to this such as Victoria who took the WCAG 1.0 standard a little more seriously than others, broadly speaking Australia did not actively embrace the provision of accessible content in government.

Maguire V SOCOG

It is then perhaps with some irony that in 2000 the eyes of the world turned to Australia to see what would happen when the strength of WCAG 1.0 was put to a legal test. In the Maguire V Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) case, a blind man took SOCOG to the then-named Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) due to the Sydney 2000 Olympics website being inaccessible making it impossible to purchase tickets and keep up with the Games activities for assistive technology users. Maguire discusses his experience in a video created by the now-more-simpler-named Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC):

As noted into the video, Maguire ultimately won the case but at a massive personal cost. The reason it is such a difficult process relates to the legal framework designed to protect people with a disability against discrimination, the Disability Discrimination Act of 1992 (DDA).

The legal process

The biggest issue in fighting the lack of technology support as a person with a disability is how the DDA handles technology – or rather the lack of it. Currently there is no reference to anything related to Information and Communications Technology (ICT, computers, the Internet or anything that could specifically address a person with a disability that cannot access online information in the DDA. There is, however, an advisory note published in 2014 by the AHRC which explains that Section 24 can apply. It is explained as follows:

The provision of information and online services through the web is a service covered by the DDA. Equal access for people with a disability in this area is required by the DDA where it can reasonably be provided. This requirement applies to any individual or organisation developing a website or other web resource in Australia or placing or maintaining a web resource on an Australian server. This includes web pages and other resources developed or maintained for purposes related to employment; education; provision of services including professional services, banking, insurance or financial services, entertainment or recreation, telecommunications services, public transport services, or government services; sale or rental of real estate; sport; activities of voluntary associations; or administration of Commonwealth laws and programs. All these are areas specifically covered by the DDA.

In addition to these specific areas, provision of any other information or other goods, services or facilities through the internet is a service, and as such, discrimination in the provision of this service is covered by the DDA. The DDA applies to services whether provided for payment or not.”

Unfortunately, while the note suggests certainty, it also highlights the long bow that must be drawn in recognising access to the Internet as a service. Furthermore, it does not recognise the most critical part of the argument and that is that barriers to online information are not just about denial of service, but denial of an essential service. As the DDA does not specifically mention this and the legislation pre-dates the arrival of the World Wide Web for most people, it is unable to enforce online access. Therefore, the DDA is broken. As such, policy – even good policy – cannot rectify it.

Good policy is no substitute for legislation

The frustration with the lack of ICT support in the DDA is that there has been a lot of good policy created that should be helpful in addressing inequity. The problem is that it has no teeth. While Australia was slow in adopting WCAG 1.0, it did a much better job in adopting WCAG 2.0 which remains the current Australian requirement. Shortly after the arrival of WCAG 2.0 in 2008, the Federal government created the National Transition Strategy (NTS) which set specific deadlines for Federal government websites to make their content accessible. The plan was for all websites to conform to the Level A target of WCAG 2.0 by the end of 2012 and Level AA by the end of 2014. The states and local governments also got on board, and it seemed that web accessibility was soon going to be a thing of the past.

However, an interim report card after the first deadline indicated that only 26% of websites self-reported to be WCAG 2.0 Level A compliant. While the government saw this as largely good news as it had got the accessibity of government websites from near-0% to 26%, the disability community was less than impressed and the final report was never released to the public.

Policies today

So, coming back to the present, what policies are in place to ensure that people with a disability can gain effective access to online content and get jobs that require online access? Well there have been some positives. The two most notable in government circles is the Digital Service Standard (DSS) in which point 9 specifically refers to accessibility. As such, there is certainly good policy to say that the Federal government should be making its content accessible. In relation to procurement, there has also been progress. As of last year, there is a specific disability ICT procurement standard based on an almost direct text adoption of the European Standard (EN 301 549). The Federal government was so excited about the work, it committed to its adoption before the standard was even finished!  When these efforts are combined with the overall AHRC ruling on the relevance of the DDA, it should be the case that Australia is a beacon of digital access. Unfortunately, in practical terms, these policies have little impact.

The DDA doesn’t work – let’s fix it

The upshot is that the policies we have do not work despite a lot of passionate and dedicated people in government trying to fix it. It is clear that unless there is specific legislation to handle ICT discrimination for people with a disability, it will continue to be the case that policies can be ignored without any consequences, putting the pressure on individuals with disabilities to lodge a claim.

As such, I join the disability groups mentioned in the news item at the start of this article in a call for change. However, in my view there’s no point in creating more internal government policy as it clearly doesn’t work. It seems ridiculous that 18 years after the Maguire case, the processes for addressing online access issues largely remain the same.  The time has come to fix the law itself – to update the DDA so that digital access is acknowledged as an essential human right, and by doing so a clear case can be made that failure to abide by the provision of digital access has enforceable consequences.