As Tech Improves, Accessibility Is Always Playing Catch-Up

Every day, 250 people start to lose their sight, while almost two million people have a sight problem, which has a serious impact on their daily lives.

That’s about one person in thirty. It’s a number that includes people who are registered blind and partially sighted, and all the other people whose sight problems have a significant impact on daily activities. The five leading causes of sight loss in the UK are refractive error, age-related macular degeneration, cataract, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, but never forget that not all people who are blind or partially sighted are registered.

Why am I telling the DM world these sobering statistics? Simple – because if your organisation doesn’t make its documents accessible, you’re effectively denying these people access, in the same way a ramp for a wheelchair user means your building can be permanently off-limits for any disabled visitor.

Many of you considered this issue was solved years ago – and it’s true there is legislation on the statute book like the Equality Act which states that “everyone must be fitted equally” and that “provision must be made for people who need special help for access to things”. But the issue hasn’t been solved by these laws – far from it. There are increasingly more ways that a document editor can produce a poorly formatted document, unfortunately. Content accessibility may have left the headlines, but the fact is it is a growing problem.

If your content is badly formatted, even with the best technology users will struggle to make sense of it. Imagine your favourite novel but the order of the chapters has been shuffled and it’s missing any index to help you bring it back in order and on top of that only some of the words are legible – that’s analogous to how a screen reader may see your document.

The reality is that as tech improves, accessibility is always playing catch-up: it’s a perpetually moving target. Then, there is also the sheer volume of information that’s being pumped out at the general public and the multitude of formats being produced to deliver it, which is where a lot of accessibility issues crop up.

PDF is always the answer? Yes – and no

If a PDF is produced to ISO 14289 standard – the International Standard for accessible PDF technology – it’s a great solution that can be read by sighted people and those that use screen readers. But there are so few people who output their PDF content to this standard, which makes it very frustrating for customers. Braille, large text and audio technology are often neglected. And too many organisations consider a web refresh to make the site attractive and interesting, and don’t do the full accessibility work they should. There’s too low a level of proper website testing for accessibility – the ‘I’ve run this piece of software against it, and it looks pretty accessible to me’ approach tends to win out for convenience rather than going through proper user group testing with people who use screen readers.

To take one recent example –as the BBC reported back in May, recent small banking website changes wiped out most of the website for whole swathes of partially sighted and blind customers, for instance.

If you were the CEO of a company and found half your monthly report redacted, you’d address that quickly, I think you’ll agree. So what do should be done? I am involved with a cross-vendor membership body that is trying to help address these issues. That’s in the shape of UKAAF, The UK Association for Accessible Formats. We’re an industry association, setting standards and promoting best practice for quality accessible information based on user needs to help businesses and organisations deliver a quality service to meet the needs of people with print impairments.

Use the tools, do the work – and reap the rewards

We also work closely with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), the UK’s leading charity supporting the UK’s blind and partially sighted people. This, then, is the Document Management community call to action: document accessibility shouldn’t just be about compliance, but fairness – and also, to be frank, your business maximising its opportunity in the marketplace.

The good news is that a lot of accessibility work requires very little investment. Even the smallest organisations may be using Microsoft Office to produce their documents, and in-built to Microsoft Office are ways of making that documents accessible. With Google’s G Suite, there is the GrackleDocs range of add-ons to help.

So use the tools. Think about accessibility. Do the right sort of PDF work. Do the testing. And always look at the content you are sending out to your users, look at the systems that are producing those documents, then ask your technologists and vendors whether that is accessible output or not – and if not, why not?

A little extra attention can make your content fully accessible – and I think your customers will thank you for it.

Jeff Mills is VP EMEA at leading customer communications management (CCM) vendor Messagepoint, but also founded Grackle Docs, a provider of accessibility add-ons for Google G Suite and is a board member of The UK Association for Accessible Formats (UKAAF)

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