What is Digital Accessibility and Inclusion?

Digital accessibility is the process of ensuring digital technologies, services and resources, such as websites, mobile apps, e-books and documents are:

  • designed with the needs of disabled people and additional needs in mind
  • flexible and can be personalised to meet individual needs
  • created so that they are compatible with assistive technology
  • compliant with recognised accessibility guidance and regulations

Digital Accessibility is a term that refers to digital content and how readily available and usable it is to any person including those who may have additional access needs, such as someone with a visual impairment.

Digital Inclusion is a term that refers to removing access barriers affecting those who want to interact with digital content. These barriers might include inaccessible systems, a lack of skills or understanding by the user, or the lack of devices or connectivity to digital content.

The goal is for digital products to be usable:

  • without vision
  • with limited vision
  • without perception of colour
  • without hearing
  • with limited hearing
  • with limited dexterity
  • with limited cognition
  • without speech

In the UK, public sector websites and apps must meet accessibility standards from September 2019. This is due to the new Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018.

The Equality Act 2010 says that you must not be discriminated against because:

  • you have a disability
  • someone thinks you have a disability (this is known as discrimination by perception)
  • you are connected to someone with a disability (this is known as discrimination by association)

It is not unlawful discrimination to treat a disabled person more favourably than a non-disabled person when providing reasonable adjustments where needed. Meeting digital accessibility standards helps organisations to avoid indirect discrimination as it ensures disabled people can access the organisation’s websites or digital content from the outset. Digital accessibility is also considered a mechanism for providing reasonable adjustments for those who need them.

Why is it important?

According to the BBC Media Literacy study:

  • 21% of people cannot use the web
  • 14% of people do no have internet access
  • 7% have internet access but do not use it in ways that benefit them day to day.

Digital exclusion affects some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in society, including those in social housing, those on lower wages or unemployed, older people, and those with disabilities. 33% of people with registered disabilities have never used the internet. This is 54% of the total number of people who have never used the internet.

Considering that nearly all interactions with large organisations now involves communication using a computer, it is clear to see the barriers that are put in place for those who experience digital exclusion. For example; blocking people from getting the best out of their education if they cannot engage with University curriculum content, or being unable to access basic services through their local council because the website does not interact well with screen readers.

WebAIM has produced figures that demonstrate the scale of frustration for users in these situations. Their latest survey of low vision users from September 2018, shows that 66.6% often (a few times a month or more frequently) abandon reading web content because it is not accessible. 14% abandon web content every day. To make their experience even worse 45.4% of those questioned feel that accessibility is not getting any better, and 19.8% feel it is getting worse.

A really good way to think about Digital Inclusion is to equate it to access to the physical environment. People are very familiar with the idea that public buildings need to have ramps and lifts to ensure access for wheelchair users and those with other mobility related issues. Digital inclusion is the same principle, but applied to information communication and technology (ICT), so it is effectively putting in ‘ramps and lifts’ to ICT. We want to design systems and online services that work well for everyone regardless of the devices they use or the way they need to access our digital content.

This ethos is encapsulated in the following video where a University of Kent student with a visual impairment speaks about access to information (please fast forward to 26:00).

The Design Council have published a short animated film that very concisely explains what inclusive design means, and how it benefits organisations that apply it.

Microsoft have published information about their inclusive practice initiative that is a great start for embedding inclusive design.

The Digital Inclusion Agenda

The Digital Inclusion agenda is a national push by central government to better enable the digital inclusion of all staff and citizens using Public Sector services. The Government Digital Inclusion Strategy was released in December 2014 and made commitments on actions that government and partners from the public, private and voluntary sectors will take to reduce digital exclusion. The Digital Inclusion agenda consists of three “pillars” that inform the areas that need to be addressed to improve digital inclusion:

  • Connectivity – Providing access to digital services through diverse channels. This pillar focuses on the delivery of internet connectivity to all, alongside making other channels readily available. This work is supported by things such as the nationwide broadband improvement rollouts.
  • Digital Skills – Giving users the support / ability to use computers and the internet. Many users not only lack access to digital services (don’t have a computer etc.), but even if they had access would not be able to use them because they lack the appropriate skills to be able to use a computer or the services they need to engage with. This pillar focuses on improving the skills of individuals to empower them to be able to make use of digital services. This work is supported by things such as Libraries’ Digital Buddy schemes in which volunteers help individuals complete online tasks or learn computer skills.
  • Accessibility – Services should be designed to meet all users’ needs, including those dependent on assistive technologies. This pillar focuses on delivering services that are usable and understandable to all, regardless of disability or access needs. This work is supported by guidelines such as the new Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations.

Within these pillars sits practical actions that need to be taken to ensure public sector digital services are inclusive. The remainder of this toolkit is focused on the practical delivery of the accessibility pillar of the Digital Inclusion Agenda.