What is digital access?
Digital access, often known simply as ‘accessibility’ or ‘#a11y’, refers to the way in which people with disability gain access to digital content. This generally includes the use of the web, apps, documents and devices associated with online information such as computers, smartphones and tablets.
For people with disability, there are essentially two things that need to occur for effective digital access:
- People with disability need accessibility support on their device of choice. This support is usually in the form of software or hardware known as Assistive Technology (AT).
- Content needs to be created in a way that supports the needs of people with disability, including compatibility with AT.
The purpose of this resource is to assist mainstream organisations that provide support to people with disability such as government agencies, health, allied health, mental health and clinical services and NDIS-affiliated providers.
Addressing the Issues
Why does my mainstream organisation need to address digital access issues?
The latest statistics from the World Health Organisation suggest that 15% of the global population have a disability. In Australia, it is approximately 4.3 million people, or 18.3% of the population, that have some form of permanent disability.
As noted in the World Wide Web (W3C) How People with Disabilities Use the Web, people with disability will experience the web in a variety of different ways and includes those who:
- may not be able to see, hear, move, or may not be able to process some types of information easily or at all
- may have difficulty reading or comprehending text
- may not have or be able to use a keyboard or mouse
- may have a text-only screen, a small screen, or a slow Internet connection
- may not speak or understand fluently the language in which the document is written
- may be in a situation where their eyes, ears, or hands are busy or interfered with (e.g., driving to work, working in a loud environment, etc.)
- may have an early version of a browser, a different browser entirely, a voice browser, or a different operating system.
If mainstream organisations are to ensure that their content is accessible to people with disability, these situations need to be considered.
Ultimately people with disability want to experience the content you create as intended. The goal is to ensure that regardless of how a person with disability accesses your content, the same digital experience is achieved. It’s to this end that this resource has been created.
If you are unfamiliar with the idea of making content accessible, a good place to start is to watch the following video produced by the W3C. In this video you will learn more about how different people with disability experience the web and associated technologies.
The creation of accessible content is generally something that mainstream organisations want to achieve once the issues are understood. However, it is also important to note that making digital content accessible is not only a good thing to do, but is also a mandatory requirement for government and companies. As such, there are a number of legislative frameworks and policies requiring its implementation.
To start globally, there is an international standard called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that is produced by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Global, Federal, state and local policies associated with digital access reference this standard. You can find out more about this in the WCAG section of this resource.
In terms of global responsibility, Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in which Article 9 states that:
To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas.
In Australia, the requirement for digital access sits under Section 24 of the Disability Discrimination Act of 1992 (DDA). While the DDA does not specifically mention technology access, an advisory note published in 2014 by the AHRC explains the requirement as follows:
The provision of information and online services through the web is a service covered by the DDA. Equal access for people with a disability in this area is required by the DDA where it can reasonably be provided. This requirement applies to any individual or organisation developing a website or other web resource in Australia or placing or maintaining a web resource on an Australian server. This includes web pages and other resources developed or maintained for purposes related to employment; education; provision of services including professional services, banking, insurance or financial services, entertainment or recreation, telecommunications services, public transport services, or government services; sale or rental of real estate; sport; activities of voluntary associations; or administration of Commonwealth laws and programs. All these are areas specifically covered by the DDA.
In addition to these specific areas, provision of any other information or other goods, services or facilities through the internet is a service, and as such, discrimination in the provision of this service is covered by the DDA. The DDA applies to services whether provided for payment or not.
While the AHRC note applies to all registered Australian organisations, government has some additional policies. The Federal government follows the Digital Service Standard in which Point 9 specifically refers to accessibility. The Government of Western Australia also has web accessibility policy.
In Australia, the requirement for achieving appropriately accessible content is compliance with the WCAG 2.0 standard to the Level AA conformance target. Further details on how this can be achieved can be found in the WCAG section of this resource.
The importance of digital access as a human right is a point well made by the AHRC. However, it is important to note that this is not just applicable in theory but has also been tested in practice.
The effectiveness of the DDA was put to the test in 2000 due to the Bruce Lindsay Maguire v Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) case. Maguire argued that as a blind person he should be able to gain access to ticketing and result information on the Olympics website. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission determined that SOCOG had discriminated against Maguire in breach of section 24 of the DDA.
In this video presentation created by the AHRC, Maguire discusses both the importance of the case and the great personal cost in having to argue for access. It is an effective reminder as to why mainstream organisation should ensure that digital access is integrated into work practices rather than having to be fought in a legal setting.
Internationally there have also been legal precedents in the US and Canada that have had local implications. In the US, a class action taken against the Target Corporation by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and “BJ” Sexton, a Californian who is classified as blind. “BJ” Sexton and the NFB charged that Target’s website (www.target.com) was inaccessible to the blind, violating the California Unruh Civil Rights Act and the California Disabled Persons Act. The case escalated and ultimately led to Target addressing its web accessibility issues. Further information can be found at the National Federation of the Blind website. This has highlighted the reach of digital access that it applies to all registered organisations, not just government or mainstream organisations associated with disability support.
The Canadian case is Donna Johan v Attorney General of Canada in which Donna Johan, a tech-savvy blind woman, was unable to apply for government jobs due to the inaccessibility of the websites. Johan won both the original case and the appeal. The significance of this case was that the government tried to address the accessibility of the website by providing the same information in Braille, but Jodhan argued that it was not enough to have the same information in a separate process as it took away her independence.
The element that joins all three cases together was that when people with disability approached the respective organisations for help on digital access, their request was rejected due to a lack of appreciation for the importance of digital access. Through this resource you will be able to understand the ways in which people with disability interact with your content and how to address potential access issues.