Developing government web accessibility guidelines

How User Vision built a web accessibility culture in Abu Dhabi

Last night I attended the Scottish Usability Professionals Association monthly seminar for a keynote by Chris Rourke of User Vision, on "Developing government web accessibility guidelines and a web accessibility culture." Having recently authored a web standards document which focused on web accessibility, I was keen to learn of their process and identify parallels and pitfalls in both our approaches.

The presentation centred around a project undertaken by User Vision for the Abu Dhabi government in the Middle East, who were keen to improve the accessibility standards of government websites across the estate. Accessibility standards were identified as poor to average at best, with varying levels of understanding of what web accessibility is.

Part of the increase in awareness and interest in accessibility could be attributed to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which Chris cited as a driver for the Abu Dhabi government to take action.

Six phased approach

User Vision split the project into six phases to establish the accessibility guidelines:

  1. kickoff and background info
  2. develop the guidelines blueprint – high level outline based on proven better practice, existing international standards and needs of major disability groups
  3. identify the baseline of current landscape
  4. development of guidelines
  5. implementation and support materials
  6. evaluation of sites and development plan.

During the development of the guidelines blueprint, it was noted that existing international standards (eg WCAG2) would be difficult to understand in their natural form. Whilst these guidelines are excellent in their own way, the concept and explanations around "Perceivable Operable Understandable and Robust" are tricky enough for English speaking accessibility consultants in the West, nevermind translated to Arabic for an audience new to accessibility. It was decided to develop an easy to understand guide at two conformance levels: mandatory and optional. These guidelines would be ordered by element type (images, colour, navigation, forms, tables, audio, video etc) and more aligned to the technical reference of WCAG1.

For implementation and support two key documents were delivered: a Technical Implementation Guide and How to Assess Accessibility Guide. The former would detail the hows and whys of implementing HTML, CSS, JS and related front end presentations whilst the latter explained how to measure how accessible a website is.

As well as the government website estate, supplier agency skills were also evaluated though a series of site audits (were their sites accessible? did they have an accessibility policy?), questionnaires, and face to face interviews. The approach and attitude to accessibility were recorded and reported back to the government with ratings that would eventually make up an approved supplier list for future developments.

With the hows explained, we took a look at why a whole region should have such a poor history of accessibility.

Understanding the accessibility ecosystem: East and West

The accessibility ecosystem is made up of 3 parts:

  • people with disabilities
  • companies, service providers and government bodies
  • suppliers.

Each part brings it's own difficulties in understanding the market. For example, because many families take care of their disabled relatives in some extent of secrecy, it is very difficult to obtain accurate stats on numbers of disabled members in society. Perceptions of disabled people have only been changing in recent years.

…people with disabilities in this region still face obstacles in being included in society alongside people without disabilities.

World Bank on disability in the Middle East and North Africa

This is in stark contrast to the West where you have a tradition of activism amongst the disabled communities. It's been over 20 years since the ADA was passed in the USA.

Companies and service providers may be ill equipped to cope with new requirements due to a lack of exposure in an accessible culture with local legislation. In a region with no laws to govern the accessibility of a website, what consequences are there to not following requirements? Contrast this with the West, where suppliers may face scrutiny from pressure groups such as the RNIB or legal action such as that taken against the Sydney Olympics website in July 2000 (A Cautionary Tale of Inaccessibility: Sydney Olympics Website).

In the West government bodies would come under pressure if particular groups were discriminated against. In a democracy, you'd be voted out. If there's no democracy, not much is going to come of not complying.

Insightful

It's fantastic news that the Abu Dhabi government are taking steps to improve accessibility in the region through its own websites. The realisation that a lot of sites in the East are inaccessible is just an observation, not a criticism. Having a plan in place to tackle the issues is the first step to creating an accessible culture.