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Digital government that’s inclusive and accessible for all

By Jaymi Cohen
A woman uses sign language to communicate.

We often associate accessibility with the symbol of someone using a wheelchair. After all, it is the International Symbol of Accessibility. Sure, this helps to identify an accessible ramp that removes a physical barrier and makes a building more physically accessible. However, not all government services are in person anymore. Now that public agencies are shifting toward digital services, they need to ensure that their online offerings are inclusive and accessible as well.

When I worked for the City of Boston Commission for Persons with Disabilities, the people we served accessed digital content in different ways. For this reason, we prioritized including alternative text on materials and closed captioning during virtual meetings. If we forgot to include it, our constituents always let us know that the content was not accessible to them.

Embracing digital accessibility is a critical and central component for government agencies to serve all their constituents in an evolving digital world. They need to be designing for the full spectrum of human experiences in the effort towards digital inclusion.

Disability and neurodiversity impact all of us

People consume information and learn in different ways. In the United States, 1 in 4 people has some form of disability, whether it be physical, cognitive, auditory, or visual. While the neurodiversity movement began in the 1900s, we are still learning about how neurodiversity and cognitive differences apply to user experience and inclusive design.

People with and without disabilities benefit from digital accessibility. For example, while closed captions provide a means to access information for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, they also are helpful for someone without a disability on a crowded bus or if the language being used isn’t their first language.

Understanding the importance of accessibility

The importance of accessibility can be understood through four different lenses: ethical, legal, economic, and innovative. While it’s critical for public agencies to abide by accessibility regulations and standards — as well as to understand the potential legal implications of not following them — there are also economic and innovative opportunities associated with digital accessibility.

  1. Ethical: Government agencies have a responsibility to represent all constituents in their community, and it’s morally right to be inclusive of all people.
  2. Legal: As a result of web accessibility laws, agencies may face audits or lawsuits if digital content isn’t accessible, which can be costly and time consuming.
  3. Economic: The public sector has a fiscal responsibility to spend taxpayer dollars inclusively by serving all constituents.
  4. Innovative: Including new and more diverse perspectives can help identify and solve for new and diverse problems.

What are the current accessibility standards?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 states, “No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability…of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation …” How this law applies to digital goods and services is still unclear.

Other standards such as the Accessibility Standards of 2010, and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (and updated versions since) require that agencies provide the same access to information for individuals with and without disabilities. Globally, the Web Accessibility Initiative produced accessibility best practices — the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) — with recommendations for websites, web applications, mobile applications, and digital content to be accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities.

As regulations and standards try to keep up with an evolving digital world, government agencies can lead the way in becoming accessibility-first in their day-to-day programs and services.

The nuance of prioritizing digital accessibility

While prioritizing accessibility doesn’t need to be expensive, it does need to go beyond following a checklist. It requires a cultural investment across an agency and engagement with people with disabilities.

For example, when checking for accessibility (either manually or through a built-in tool such as the Microsoft’s Accessibility Checker), one might be able to identify that all images have alternative text. What someone needs to know, however, is whether the alternative text is useful or effective.

As stated in CAST’s National Center for Educational Materials, “Accessibility is a simple concept in theory, but it can be complicated in practice. What is accessible to someone with a visual disability is not necessarily accessible to someone with a learning disability.”

How to become accessibility-first

One of our core values at Slalom is, “Do what is right, always.” It’s not always possible to ensure that each person experiences the digital world without barriers, but it is possible to make accessibility a priority. Government agencies can also do what is right, always, to become more digitally inclusive.

1. Research accessibility standards and best practices.
One of the barriers to becoming accessibility-first is not knowing where to start. Government agencies need to better understand and articulate the scope of accessibility best practices and the importance of prioritizing accessibility at the initial stages of, and throughout, digital development. Many technologies already include built-in accessibility features, such as the option to enable closed captioning. The next step is learning how to use them.

2. Assess the current level of accessibility and inclusivity.
It helps to first understand the current level of accessibility. To do this, agencies should connect with their constituents and ask for feedback on their experiences accessing information. An audit or review with a third-party partner can also help build the skills for mitigating issues.

3. Develop an accessibility and inclusivity improvement plan.
The information gathered from constituents and teams will help identify gaps and opportunities to improve, meet, and even exceed accessibility best practices. Agencies should come up with a plan to make changes in their organization, including ways to measure improvements.

4. Find (and partner with) champions.
Some people have the misconception that digital accessibility requires too much time and energy. Leaders should encourage teams to get on board and partner with the people who are excited about these changes. These champions can help connect with people in their communities with lived experience, including people with disabilities and those who have faced barriers accessing digital information.

5. Commit to continuous testing and improvement.
Accessibility is about the journey rather than the destination — it’s an ongoing mindset to adopt when refining any new development. This involves continuous testing and retesting with people to gather and incorporate feedback along the way.

Gaining momentum, both locally and globally

Government agencies across the globe are starting to assess their digital accessibility and provide visibility into their results. In 2021, the City of Boston conducted an accessibility audit of its website and published its results, including next steps for improvement. In the United Kingdom, updated accessibility regulations for the public sector went into effect in 2018. These regulations require both central and local government agencies to publish and update an accessibility statement explaining their website or mobile application accessibility.

Partnering to prioritize accessibility

Slalom recently worked with Lake County Health Department near Chicago to develop a vaccine orchestration solution. The community population primarily includes people whose first language is not English as well as those with housing instability and/or technology issues, and people with disabilities and older adults. To ensure the solution was accessible, the team partnered with church groups, community leaders, and business leaders to demonstrate early versions of the vaccine solution, gather their feedback, and incorporate it into the final product. The team prioritized the accessibility of the solution from the beginning and partnered with the community along the way which became invested in its success.

Doing the right thing

Becoming an accessibility-first agency doesn’t need to be a daunting task. It starts with connecting with constituents, asking others about their experiences, and understanding accessibility standards and best practices. By taking this first step, government agencies can better serve the people that work, live, and play in their communities.

This blog post was originally published here.

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