Our current ‘stay at home’ lifestyle should be inclusive to people of all ages and abilities. So why is accessibility still such a problem in the 21st century? Johanna Hamilton AMBCS reports.

When Barry Ginley lost his sight 27 years ago, the internet was in its infancy and accessibility was often delegated to a ‘nice to have - if we have time’. Nearly three decades on, with screen-readers and benchmarking for websites, the PC has opened up a world of online banking, work, leisure and shopping for the mainstream. But, how does that translate to people with motor / mobility, auditory, cognitive, intellectual and visual impairments?

The website and thinktank W3C has laid out a code of conduct that all creators of IT products should adhere to. Using a set of metrics, they test and attribute a score for accessibility from the excellent ‘AAA’ rating through to an okayish ‘A’ which certainly has room for improvement. Achieving a triple AAA rating, websites such as gov.uk and the BBC lead the way. But what of the rest?

Inclusive by design

Barry Ginley set up his company, Tamstone Consulting, for the sole reason to inform big blue chip companies about the accessibility holes in their digital projects. So, should accessibility be a bolt on or part of the inception of a website?

‘It should literally be at the concept stage, as a fundamental,’ says Ginley. ‘It's just a case of understanding who the user is going to be and then how those potential obstacles and barriers can be overcome. In the computing world, we've got guidance such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, which is very specific on how to make websites and digital products more accessible. Having those as a fundamental value when developing any products is the way to really develop inclusion.’

Are PDFs really THAT bad?

We are often warned of the lack of accessibility of the PDF and how for the visually impaired, they offer absolutely nothing. Ginley explains: When the screen reader's going through a PDF, if there's a table there, then it doesn't format for the screen reader - it just runs the information as a continuous list. When I’ve read PDF tables, say with 12 columns, I’ve had to make a map in my head of what the table looks like and try and link one column to another.

‘It’s also so frustrating,’ he says, ‘to arrive at a link and it’s just a jumble of numbers and letters. Putting an alt-text on to actually say what the link is, is such a basic element for a developer to do but makes my life so much easier.’

Assistive tech

Fortunately, things are moving forward. When asked what the best innovation he’s discovered, Ginley enthusiastically explains a new scanning app which can read handwriting. ‘For the first time in 27 years, since losing my sight, I can actually now read something with handwriting, which up until two weeks ago, I couldn't do. Also, with that same app I can just hold my phone up and it gives me a description of my location (for example, it might say I'm sitting in an office).’

There are even upgrades to the app users can enjoy for a steep fee: ‘If you want to invest £3,000, you can link it to some Google specs so that when you look around the room, it gives you a commentary. So, say if my wife is in the room, it will link her to a photo in my phone and tell me “your wife is sitting in front of you”.’

Accessibility champions

There are some companies who have been at the forefront in embracing accessibility; Ginley names Apple, Freedom Scientific and, surprisingly, Tesco, as notable examples he’s encountered.

‘Apple was the first to provide an integrated voice into a phone,’ says Ginley. ‘Before that, I would have had to pay £50 to £150 every time I bought a new phone. And when I bought an iPad, I was able to set it up myself without any sighted assistance. For me, that is true inclusion.

‘I normally use a screen reader called JAWS (job access with speech) made by Freedom Scientific - that's the most popular screen reader used on desktops and laptops.

‘Tesco also has good accessibility. Although my wife normally does the food shop, I know she goes back to the Tesco site having tried others, because it’s so easy to use with the reader on our iPad (she’s also partially sighted). The charity, Scope, estimate that 82% of people with a print disability move away from inaccessible web sites. That’s a lot of lost business.’

However, he’s not been as impressed by Microsoft. ‘Microsoft has its own built in screen reader Narrator, however it lacks usability compared with JAWS or Apple’s Voice Over. Microsoft has had desktop dominance for the past 30 years or so and have arrived very late at the accessibility party. They could have really made a mark, but they haven’t,’ he says.

For one, for all

One important aspect of Ginley’s work at Tamstone is helping companies understand their users and thus improve the accessibility of their products. ‘The first thing,’ he says, ‘is to consider every person that's going to be using a product, not just non-disabled people. How will it impact somebody who has a sight problem, or who has a hearing impairment, or maybe has dexterity issues - and so on? I recently worked on the Vodafone OneNet telephony console”. The company only realised its latest package was inaccessible when they tried to sell it to the Institute for the Blind in Italy.

‘We did something like 16 different sprints with me showing the developers why it was inaccessible. One by one, the team overcame the challenges and developed a version that didn’t change any of the visuals, looked the same, but was enabled for people using screen readers.

‘It was a great learning curve for the developers. Afterwards, they bought a JAWS screen reader so they can run it when they are developing new products in the future.’

Style over substance?

It’s a persistent myth that aesthetics need to be sacrificed for accessibility. As Ginley explains, ‘Good design is good design.’

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The truth is a good designer can make anything inclusive. ‘The best example I can use of an accessible website is the BBC,’ suggests Ginley. ‘There are no untagged links there. They've got a “skip to content” feature, so it takes me past all of the navigation and straight to the content I'm looking for. The BBC also alt-text images, so I know I am on an image, so often on inaccessible sites I might just hear ‘img’ which tells me nothing.

‘Gov.uk has also put a lot of effort into their accessibility in the last few years. There’s a London Access forum for digital that meets quite regularly and developers from that site have come along and presented about how they’ve made certain aspects accessible. It's a way of putting information back into the network of developers so they can carry that information into their own websites and digital projects.’

However, a disappointing proportion of companies are still failing to implement accessibility features. ‘Often,’ says Ginley, ‘it just comes down to shortcuts. There may be time constraints and spending time adding an alt-tag might feel like a waste of time, but with two million visually impaired people in the UK, all getting frustrated and never going back to a site because it’s inaccessible - well, that’s a lot of revenue lost!

‘A DWP survey estimates that disabled people and their families have a spending power of £249 billion, a large chunk of business to be had by those who are accessible.’

The impact of COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on communities the world over and people with disabilities have been disproportionately affected. Ginley describes some of the aspects of daily life made more difficult for him in lockdown: ‘Aside from internet food shopping, which doesn’t necessarily give priority to the visually impaired, we’ve had more tech to deal with.

'We’ve had to navigate more programs - did you know that if you press alt-y on Teams it raises your hand? There are issues like that I’ve had to learn. There are Microsoft sites that have all the shortcut keys, but you have to go looking for them. Even after the best part of a year constantly on Teams, I'm still finding it a bit clunky at times!

‘On the plus side, I’m a member of organisations who have increased their meeting attendance because it’s all online. One of the groups I'm involved with used to have maybe 10 to15 people at the physical meeting. Since lockdown, we've been holding online events, and getting on average 70 or 80 people. So, when lockdown is finished, we're going to use tech to blend the events so people can turn up or dial in.’

Future tech

The conversation moves on to discuss future technology that might benefit those with disabilities - including driverless cars. Would Ginley be interested in one? ‘At the moment, you have to be able to drive,’ he says, ‘which obviously excludes me. But in the future, if you could just be a passenger, then that would be cool. I'd go for that.

‘One thing that would be brilliant is the development of bionic eyes. A bit like the six-million-dollar man. You can now get artificial hands and limbs that can actually feel if something's hot or cold or the texture. As scientists begin to understand the brain more and develop technology, they're going to turn us more into the Borg, like in Star Trek.’

Such medical advances have already happened with hearing and cochlea implants. Ginley laughs, ‘One of my friends has had cochlea implants. He was telling me that he was sitting in his kitchen talking to his daughters and he heard this tick tick tick. He asked his daughters “What's that annoying noise?” his daughters replied that it was a clock. We don't hear it because we filter it out. So, he’s now having to go through the process of adapting to the technology.’

Or perhaps technology is now going through the process of adapting to us all…

About the author

Barry Ginley is the founder of Tamstone Consulting, an organisation devoted to improving accessibility for all.

Barry studied at the University of Reading, gaining an MSc in Inclusive Environments Design and Management in 2001; and in September 2017, Barry graduated with an Executive MBA from Henley Business School.

Barry is an advisor to the UK governments Paralympic Legacy Advisory Group, and he sits on the board of the Global Disability Innovation Hub.

In October 2019, Barry was appointed as Chair for the Cabinet Office’s Regional Stakeholder Network, enabling disabled people to contribute to new government policies and practices.

Barry has written widely on many topics such as: