When people think about accessibility, it is usually in reference to the physical world - installing ramps to enable wheelchair users access to buildings or sound signals to aid visually impaired people across pedestrian crossings. Often overlooked is how many people in the digital world are affected by issues of inaccessibility, including those with a physical disability, such as a visual impairment, learning disability, or neurodiversity, such as autism. According to the World Health Organisation, around one billion people (or 15 per cent of the world’s population) are disabled. As information and public services are increasingly moved online, governments must develop the awareness, culture and capacity to support digital accessibility.
Creating an accessible digital government requires two key ingredients: the use of assistive technology where specific needs can be supported including through software applications, such as text-to-speech, or hardware, such as head pointers, and the integration of accessibility into the design, functionality and experience of digital public services, which is the focus of this blog.
Public services are where citizens and their government interact most frequently. Many of these services, ranging from welfare to taxation, have a digital interface. In Europe today, more than four fifths of government services can be accessed online. U.S. government websites receive 5.6 billion visits every 90 days. Global research conducted by the Digital Government Unit at TBI concluded that digital transformation is not only continuing but rapidly advancing, forever changing the ways governments deliver services and transact with their citizens.
Within this fast-accelerating environment, some governments are making important strides toward meeting the demands of accessibility. In many cases, governments have introduced a legal requirement for public sector websites to meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Essentially, using these guidelines ensures web content is perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. Specific changes can include captions for live media, sufficient contrasting of text and images, and providing multiple ways to access a webpage on a site.
As a trailblazer of web accessibility, the Canadian province of Ontario legislated in 2005 that all public and private sector organisations (with 50 or more employees) must meet the WCAG 2.0 guidelines by the end of 2021, with hefty fines for non-compliance alongside monitoring and audit processes.
Yet many governments are falling short. While some lack digital accessibility legislation, others have policies in place but struggle to implement them in practice. And the focus on web content alone does not mean citizens have accessible services. For instance, against the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), which outlines how European countries are achieving public service interoperability, governments were not fully exploiting new digital technologies to improve accessibility, and, as a result, not all public services are accessible to disabled people.
While efforts to meet technical web standards is critical and applauded, it is not sufficient. Most governments can do more to promote inclusive and accessible digital public services. Progress on this front, however, is held up by three important barriers. These are:
Awareness: despite the importance of accessible digital public services, awareness of it as a concept and in practice – especially at leadership levels - is low, which has slowed its adoption and normalisation across the public sector.
Culture: it is sometimes assumed that new technologies and digital interfaces alone will automatically solve inaccessibility. While digital technologies open access (for instance, Estonia have launched a voice assistant for government services, Bürokratt), they can also amplify or leave unresolved old accessibility problems. For instance, where online services replace in-person ones that some disabled people rely on. This results in biased and unbalanced perceptions of accessibility.
Capacity: a shortage in digital accessibility expertise (especially around technical knowledge) is slowing progress toward universal accessibility. In the example of Ontario above, the implementation of web accessibility was inhibited in part due to the lack of expertise on accessibility. Technical expertise matters for compliance monitoring too: automated testing tools catch only 25 per cent of WCAG criteria and cannot replace manual testing by an accessibility expert.
Creating accessible digital public services entails a shift in how government operates, supported by a change in policy and practice. Governments must build awareness, culture and capacity.
First, accessibility and inclusion must sit at the heart of digital government, not as an afterthought. Without this approach, services remain inaccessible and ‘accessibility debt’ accumulates - meaning it is costlier for governments to resolve later. Inclusive design improves the user experience for everyone; in short, it is good design.
This means putting users at the centre of the process with the aim to make public services usable by the diverse range of people accessing them, which can be done by engaging and co-designing with disabled people, with strong feedback mechanisms. Such an approach is taken by LabX in Portugal – a public sector innovation team using citizen engagement and feedback to make public services more inclusive and accessible. And some private companies lead in inclusive human centred design practices, revolutionising how every person uses and interacts with technology and setting a new, higher bar for governments to meet.
It also means thinking about accessibility at the concept and/or design stage – this was a key finding of a user experience research report on accessibility commissioned by the government of New Zealand.
Second, web accessibility and universal design should be the standard in today’s computer science and design courses, where currently few teach accessibility, or pedagogical culture and curricular infrastructure is not developed. In the world of work, digital academies designed to upskill and reskill civil servants in digital service design should include disability awareness and inclusion practices as standard, as well as courses for the technical skills required to build accessible content. These two institutional changes can help to raise awareness and normalize digital accessibility as the standard, while cultivating future generations of digital accessibility experts.
Finally, expanding employment opportunities for disabled people within public administrations should be the norm (supported by adequate funding for adjustments in the workplace). This will provide opportunities for service creators to harness a mix of experience and expertise to improve public services. In the UK civil service, 14 per cent of workers are disabled, nearly representative of wider society. In 2021 the success rate for disabled applicants was double that of non-disabled applicants.
As more information shifts online and more services are digitised, governments must ensure everyone is able to reap the benefits. Many governments already use WCAG - an important first step. But technical standards alone are not enough. To have any impact, governments need to develop awareness, culture, and capacity to deliver accessible public services. In the end, this is not just good for disabled people, it is good for everyone.