Thursday, 20 May marks the tenth Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), a global event that sheds light on digital access and inclusion for people with disabilities and impairments across the world. 

To get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion, we sat down (virtually!) with award-winning inclusive design consultant and speaker Greg Alchin to discuss how we can better raise awareness on digital accessibility and move towards removing as many unnecessary online barriers as possible.

Hi Greg, tell us about yourself, what is your role at the Department of Education? 

I am the lead on Disability employment and inclusion within NSW Department of Education. I'm also managing the department's disability inclusion action plan. So, within that role, I am helping all the different divisions across our organisation to be more inclusive and trying to improve the governance and accountability about how we make our organisation more inclusive.  

For me, disability is a lived experience. I'm legally blind in my right eye, and my left eye is a prosthesis – also known as an artificial eye – or as I like to call it, a plastic fantastic. So, disability has given me that perspective and I therefore have a deep understanding of those challenges.  

I also have a range of professional qualifications. I've got a postgraduate qualification in web accessibility. I'm certified by both Apple and Microsoft as an accessibility specialist and I’m a member of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals.  

Accessibility really is part of my DNA! 

What are some of the initiatives that you’ve implemented at the Department of Education? 

There have been a range of initiatives, but one that I’m most excited about right now is related to digital procurement. In 2017, Australia adopted a new standard in accessible procurement (AS EN 301 549:2020 – Accessibility requirements for ICT products and services), which we have now incorporated across NSW. The standard includes many forms of ICT including digital textbooks and digital books for students. We have simplifified the standards for buying digital textbooks and digital books so that students with a disability have equal access to learning resources.  

We are also currently working hard to make sure these digital learning materials are published and distributed in an ePUB format, not in a PDF format. PDFs are inaccessible when used on modern devices such as smartphones and tablets. Whereas ePUBs  are a HTML-based standardised format that can support the digitisation of print books. They also provide students with the flexibility of digital screens to resize, reflow and enhance text and media rich content. 

What can we do better within our own organisations? 

The conversation I like to have with people is about affording everybody dignity and respect – and accessibility is a massive part in how provide dignity and respect. Because through accessibility, we can provide equal access to information and services for everybody. And it’s just breaking that conversation down to that. While we can have the legislative conversations and overload people with a lot of complex information, but in the end the better conversation to have is the ‘heart and mind’ conversation about affording everybody the dignity and respect they deserve. 

We have also been running several Office 365 training workshops at the Department of Education to help create a more inclusive workplace, meet the needs of employees with disabilities and empower everyone with the tools they need to be productive. 

Furthermore, we celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day by bringing in guest speakers from major organisations, like Apple and Microsoft, to help people realise what is in their hands and how we can remove certain barriers for not only the users but the content creators along the way. 

Global Accessibility Awareness Day started ten years ago. In your opinion what has changed the most in the last 10 years? 

I think the biggest change is both Microsoft and Apple and the level of inbuilt accessibility features within our devices. From when the iPhone was originally introduced, it was designed with an inbuilt screen reader. And every year since, there have been more and more updates and features.  

The level of functionality in these devices means that we can now take this as mainstream. It also pushes our expectations within the community about what we want to be able to achieve.  

For example, a good friend of mine works for Vision Australia and he is totally blind. He has an iPhone 12 Pro which features the LIDAR scanner. When he hops on the train, he can scan it around the carriage, and it will let him know if there's a vacant seat in front of him or if there is one two meters away. 

What’s changed the least?  

There are still too many inaccessible websites, as well as online surveys and forums out there. Accessible websites and online surveys involve care in their design as well as in their technical delivery. But every day I still come across sites that have dark grey text on a light grey background and the colour contrast isn't there, or they haven’t added alt text to an image. These things, small or big, create barriers and the barriers are designed by you.  

It's time we remove the barriers. For me, I'll still have an impairment, but I won't have a disability because I can still participate on the same basis. 

If there was one thing that you would want us all to do better, what would it be?  

This is a quote of mine that I use to shed light on the concept of dignity and respect. It’s about recognising that the decisions we make have the biggest impact. 

“Our decisions require empathy to understand our audience needs, the humility of thought to challenge our own assumptions, and the openness to discover new ideas and practices that afford everyone the dignity and respect of equal access.”

Greg Alchin smiling