On Saturday 3 December 2022, people from around the world will come together to celebrate International Day of People with Disability. To mark this special event, we sat down with our colleague Audrey to chat about her experience with digital barriers in the workplace.
Digital accessibility isn't just about technical compliance. Your website, document or service can comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) – but that doesn't mean it's accessible. Your content must be accessible too.
Audrey is a Project Officer who enjoys analysing and consolidating data into a form that can be used to help others. For her, digital accessibility isn't a tick-box exercise. She sees digital accessibility as “presenting and structuring information in a way that people can utilise in the first instance, regardless of their neurotype, disability or needs, without having to go back and ask for an accessible version”.
For Audrey, who is neurodivergent, receiving documents and information that is not accessible prevents her from getting on with her work. Sometimes she receives inaccessible documents with “visualisations that rely on colours, a lack of contrast and information everywhere”. For example, she talks about receiving text as 'screen grab' images, or using PowerPoint presentations for huge, poorly organised chunks of text.
Inaccessible documents are not just an annoyance: they actively prevent Audrey from processing and using the information, adding unnecessary stress and hours of time to her day. “I have to spend time outside my standard hours to make [the information] work for me”.
Like many of us, Audrey has found that accessibility awareness and practice can vary from team to team and workplace to workplace. Many teams see accessibility as an extra burden, not a crucial consideration. She's also found that time-poor teams are reluctant to give her reasonable accommodations, like extra time to process information.
Audrey has offered to restructure documents to make them accessible, but sometimes she meets resistance. As Audrey points out, “people shouldn't have to self-identify to get things readable… if I'm struggling with it, others might be too”.
Writing accessible documents is easier than you might think!
- using plain English and avoiding jargon
- presenting information in a structured, logical way
- using the right tool for the job – e.g., use PowerPoint for presentations, Word for written documents
- avoiding inaccessible PDFs and screen grabs
- avoiding busy infographics
- being open to feedback.
To check the accessibility of your work, Audrey suggests that you could, “once in a while, use a screen reader or navigation pane and test your document to see how it works”. Screen readers and navigation panes travel through documents based on headings and other document landmarks. You will quickly see whether you have formatted your headings incorrectly!
This kind of thinking is crucial for NSW Government employees who sometimes forget that others don't think like them, or don't have the same expertise. As Audrey points out, “if you can create things that are accessible for everyone in a way that makes little difference for some – that's ideal”.
Digital accessibility practices often do help the general population in ways they might not expect. For example, using the headings function in MS Word can help neurodivergent people and people who use a screen reader to process your document – but it will also help people who speak English as a second language, have a headache, are tired, have eye strain… the list goes on. Improving the accessibility of your documents is crucial for some of your readers but will likely help all of them.
As Audrey says, accessibility “is not a box tick at the end of something” – it's a way of thinking. Make sure your work is accessible by design and your audience will thank you for it.