Access for all
Accessibility standards and testing aim to ensure that e-government services can be accessed and enjoyed by all users with different abilities or requirements
The development of web and mobile government has, on the whole, improved the reach of public sector agencies, enabling them to create new channels to deliver services, and to be more efficient in serving citizens and residents.
The shift to digital services has increased convenience for users and created cost and time savings for users and providers alike. In developing digital services however, many government agencies are still getting up to speed on how to serve an often overlooked part of their audience — users with special needs and disabilities.
The overall usability of a service has become the focus of User Experience (UX) as an element of application design. Software developers, designers and other IT staff across public and private sector have realised the importance of creating services that are easy to use and which aid the user in accessing information or completing processes with as little fuss as possible. In the field of Accessibility — the design of products, services, environments and so on, to meet the requirements of disabled users — developers are following some of the same aims of UX, but are also tackling specific challenges related to the capabilities of the user and catering to them in the digital world.
Accessibility as a requirement for the web was first discussed in depth in 1994-1995, around the Second International Conference on the World Wide Web (WWW II), and the first ‘official’ guidelines, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were created based on many different sets of guidelines that arose from then on. WCAG, which is published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organisation for the Internet, was revised in 2008 to version 2.0, and certified as an ISO standard, ISO/IEC 40500:2012 in 2012.
Today WCAG 2.0 is widely accepted as best practice for accessibility in web services. The guidelines are based around four main areas, to make services Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust, with guidelines focusing on areas such as ensuring that content can be presented as text or in different forms to make it easier to see, that content is easy to find, to read and understand, and that users have time to use a service, that services are compatible with devices to help users and that services assist users in accurate data input into forms and so on.
Alongside of the WCAG for services, users also deploy a range of hardware and software to help them to access technology services, including adaptive keyboards, mice and other devices for input; special headphones and captioning for users with hearing issues; voice recognition software; magnification devices; and screen readers to automatically convert text to speech for visually-impaired users.
Compliance with WCAG 2.0 or similar standards such as Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act, are increasingly becoming a legal requirement for web services, and the public sector in particular is realising the need to apply accessibility to all of their projects. Governments recognise that they have a duty to make sure that services are available to all, and that accessibility is necessary to ensure that users are not excluded or disqualified from accessing public services simply because of their abilities.
“Accessibility is experience for people with disability — a government agency has no business cutting people out [because of a disability] It is important to pay attention to giving them a positive experience as well. Accessibility is part of the experience,” said Dr Ali Al-Azzawi, City Experience Advisor, Smart Dubai Office.
Smart Dubai Office (SDO) is just one of government entities that is making accessibility an everyday part of web development. For the omni-channel government services portal in Dubai, ‘DubaiNow’, accessibility was included “one hundred percent from the ground up”, Dr Al-Azzawi explained, and the code for DubaiNow is fully accessible for screen readers and similar devices, so that visually-impaired users can navigate the app. The organisation has also looked at developing new accessibility tools during UAE Innovation Week last year.
Further, SDO is also responsible for developing and implementing the Happiness Agenda of Dubai, recently launched by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoom. Dr Al-Azzawi added that: “A central premise in the Happiness Agenda is the notion of ‘Basic Needs’, and attending to these needs includes the requirement for people to have access to government services. Accessibility is therefore linked to the happiness of people in Dubai, which is of high priority for us.”
The Mohammed Bin Rashid Housing Establishment (MRHE) and Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry both launched updated versions of their websites this summer, with a focus on meeting WC3 standards for accessibility and enabling features for users with special needs, and other agencies are following suite.
In Oman, the Information Technology Authority (ITA) has developed an e-Accessibility Policy, to provide fair opportunities to all users through ICT. The policy required WCAG 2.0 compliance, and provides other guidelines for government agencies. The ITA is also assisting them with testing of websites and other support. The ITA is also assisting private sector organisations in building accessibility into their web presence.
Another initiative from the ITA was to employ visually-impaired Omanis to carry out testing of websites to assess accessibility and to follow up on any issues.
For organisations that want to increase the accessibility of their web services, there are a number of resources available. Software developers are increasingly looking to build in accessibility and compatibility with accessibility tools and standards.
Michael Mansour, CIO, Microsoft Gulf said that Microsoft Edge (the replacement for Internet Explorer) has been developed with accessibility features built in.
“Inclusive design and web accessibility empowers and assists everyone to use the web,” he said. “In Microsoft Edge, we transitioned from the Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) API to the more modern UI Automation (UIA) API, alongside enormous complementary investments in re-architecting our DOM implementation and rewriting the browser interface from scratch. The change to UIA was a major investment in browser accessibility, and it lays the foundation for a more inclusive web experience for users who depend on assistive technology in Windows 10.
”Because EdgeHTML helps to power the Universal Windows Apps platform of Windows 10, these benefits will have an impact beyond the browser. Users will also benefit from the evergreen nature of the EdgeHTML engine,” he added.
“Accessibility is about building experiences that make your app available to people who use technology in a wide range of environments and approach your user interface with a range of needs and experiences.”
Consultancies are also helping organisations to improve the accessibility of their offerings. UX and Useability consultancy Red Blue Blur Ideas (RBBi) has developed a range of services, including audits for WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards, and its own RBBi Accessibility Fitness Check, A/AA compliance Audit and user testing with differently abled users.
Co-founder Amol Kadam explained: “The audits are done by our in-house Certified Usability Analysts in accordance with the international standards in Accessibility, and are delivered as recommendation and/or a gap analysis report. We also offer User Testing for users with disabilities to test the product in live environments with contextual task analysis. RBBi’s own Accessibility Fitness Check program helps ensure that organisations get basic accessibility guidelines/checks in place.”
Kadam added that the company tries to make sure all of its clients apply accessibility standards: “In the absence of a regulatory body enforcing basic web accessibility guidelines across the digital ecosystem, we attempt to informally apply & ensure that all our projects undergo at least the basic fitness checks for the clients we work with.
“Although, there’s a lot more that needs to be done, we’re glad that everyone is finally recognising the need for this – all in the name of making the digital ecosystem a better place for the range of users alike,” Kadam added. “With Dubai’s vision of being the most accessible city in the world, we believe, as part of the initiative, the UAE Government should strongly be considering setting up a set of standards to follow for all public services channels, be it digital or offline.”
With the push for multi-channel e-government, particularly mobile apps, there is also a growing need for accessibility standards for mobile apps. The UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority’s Centre of Digital Innovation (CODI) has led efforts to ensure standards for Federal government apps in areas such as security and device compatibility, and Engineer Adel Al Mehairi, Director aeCERT, said CoDI is developing accessibility testing for mobile, in part based on vendor best practices from the major mobile OS developers.
“Our next major update to the CoDI SmartLab will include accessibility testing, focusing on the inclusion of features for users who suffer a visual impairment and rely on Voiceover and Talkback features of the mobile operating system to interact with mobile applications. As part of the report results, feedback will be given to entities to help them make their application accessibility aware for these features,” Al Mehairi said.
“Mobile applications accessibility standards and tools used to assess compliance have not matured in the same way as they have for the web. If an application is web-based, we encourage entities to utilise the WCAG 2.0 standard to test their application. If the application is mobile based, the SmartLab testing criteria will focus on features and best practices exposed by operating system vendors such as Apple and Google.
“We are encouraged by the requests for accessibility testing to be included into the SmartLab, and we look forward to entities adopting more accessibility features moving forward.