If you choose to ignore accessibility, what are you choosing instead?

One of Australia’s most significant disability advocates, Stella Young, died on 6 December. And in processing this information, it caused us to stop and take stock of what it means to those of us working in the content strategy and web spaces.

Disability and accessibility are important issues. In fact, they are more than important. They are vital. When you think about ‘disability’, you are most likely thinking about people like Stella, people born with disability.

But what about people with acquired disability? You know, that girl you went to school with who has acquired brain injury from near-​drowning? That family you know whose son was in a major car accident and now can’t use his hands properly? Your mum, who can’t shop online any more because her eyesight is fading? As an aside, do you know the rate of ageing in Australia? And you’ve thought about what just this means to your online services, haven’t you?

With business having rapidly reached the point where you need two storefronts, one of which is online. You ignore accessibility at your peril.

Accessibility is a big deal

At Brutal Pixie we specialise in working with the content elements of accessibility. But there’s a whole range of design elements, too. Content Strategists like us can help you navigate that, but the field is so large that you really need to know that your web developer is 100% across the requirements, too.

Just in content, accessibility is a big deal. It’s about making sure your elements are properly tagged, labelled, described. That file names are understandable, that you don’t have PDFs that hide your content from screen readers, that your video is captioned (or optional, or transcribed) and much more besides.

And for you guys who are in large organizations, how well is your internal information system or intranet geared for accessibility? How many people on your team do you have with visual or hearing impairment? Do you expect them to function the same as someone without an impairment?

Ignoring accessibility is a significant risk

It is not only ridiculous to brush aside the needs of people with disabilities large and small. It is also a massive financial risk to you.

That’s not even a big claim. Only last month, in November 2014, one of the biggest retailers in the country, Coles Supermarkets, suddenly faced litigation because their online store is inaccessible to the visually impaired. This is a simple matter of equal access. The platform for that litigation? Discrimination.

Yes, you should be scared by that. Luckily, getting it right is not a horrible journey. It doesn’t even need to be an expensive one.

Accessibility is not hard; changing your attitude is

Accessibility is not difficult. It is not hard. The hard part is changing your attitude, and changing your company culture. There are standards and guidelines worldwide to help you, and entire communities of people who work to raise the bar. There are people like us who can come and help your teams to understand how it changes your approach to content, for example.

It’s not hard, but Australians just don’t do it

Did you know that so few people make websites accessible in Australia that a major industry body is relaxing its criteria for its awards? It’s an interesting conversation, and one we have been vocal about since its announcement.

Because accessibility requirements are part of entrance criteria for an Australian web award, it scares people away. And so, even though winning an award still requires you to have accessibility in place, you can enter without it. The leadership of the Australian Web Industry Association (of which we are members) is really just confusing the issue. It’s not important, oh but it is.

The issue is that Australians are not on board with equal access online.

It is not uncommon for us to hear people ask, “Yes, but how many blind people will visit our site really?”

That’s not the point. The point is that you are discriminating against them. Your approach in the knowledge age should be humanist rather than ableist.

Stella Young’s work is proof that accessibility is still brushed aside in the physical world. If you consider how far behind we are in the bricks-​and-​mortar world, then I beg you not to look at the online world. There is a long and arduous journey ahead of us if we are going to make digital accessible.

It’s really a fight that should be a no-​brainer. And yet instead, we are still having these discussions at an industry level about where do you draw the line? For us at Brutal Pixie, the goal should be to set the bar and demand the standard.

Australian business can’t afford to shy away from accessibility

Australians tend to be terrified of standing up and advocating strongly for something, especially if the community at large isn’t on board with it. It’s lonely and difficult, and risky. But someone has to do it.

This is why it made me smile to see this morning a tweet come out of OZeWAI 2014 that the Australian Government is soon launching an accessibility requirement in site design. That requirement will say, if your government site is not accessible, it is not to be launched. That’s huge. It’s a big shift, and a significant one that will ripple (we hope) right through the digital space.

This image shows a tweet by Dan Craddock (@slowburnweb) that says: "Soon to be launched Aus Gov design standard require gov digital products to be accessible by default; 'not accessible, not launched' #ozewai"
Tweets out of OzeWAI 2014 show the Australian Government’s movement forward on design accessibility.

I wonder if they can hear our applause on that from Melbourne? Full details about the announcement are here.

In the wake of Stella Young’s passing, we can sit back and wait for someone else like her to stand up and fight the good fight. Or we can take it on board ourselves, as able-​bodied people, and, as Young herself wrote, help to strengthen ‘…the voice of people with disability’.

In coming into the new year, ask yourself: Is accessibility going to be our default? And if not, what are you choosing instead? Love to hear your thoughts — leave a comment below.

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