Chapter 5

A history of digital accessibility in Aotearoa

Chandra Harrison

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

– Tim Berners-Lee (Seiter 2016)

At about the same time as the World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, a young woman was born with cerebral palsy in Auckland. Let us call her Meredith, but understand that this is not her real name and that Meredith is based on many people we have met over the years.

Back in 1989, no one truly knew what impact the web would have on society, or the potential freedom it could offer people like Meredith. We hadn’t really heard about digital accessibility. We didn’t grasp the future pervasiveness of the internet. We didn’t yet understand the role touchscreens, smartphones and social media would have in our lives. And we didn’t know that speech recognition and video calls, created decades before, would one day come into their own.

In the early days of computer use, programming was done by punching holes into cards and running them through a reader in a bulky mainframe computer. Few people had access to a computer, or any need of one. The introduction of personal computers, with simple green text on black screens, meant sighted people with digital dexterity could now participate in digital technology as never before. Initially sound was not used so Deaf and hard of hearing people were included — if they could read English, which many could not. 

Meredith in her lime green and lilac chair, wearing her head wand.
Meredith in her lime green and lilac coloured wheelchair, wearing her head wand.

Over time computer chips shrunk, and the range of features grew massively. Some enhancements, like small affordable mobile phones with video capability, brought technology and the internet to more people. Some changes, like reliance on colour and dynamic content, began to exclude people like Meredith who could not use a mouse.

Back then, assistive technology for disabled people consisted largely of physical aids, like white canes or wheelchairs, talking books and speech synthesisers. Because many developers had no awareness of her needs, or a willingness to meet them, Meredith was growing up in a world where she would face many barriers trying to live in everyday society.

Meredith has a wicked sense of humour and is smart, having completed a BSc in Computer Science ten years ago. The degree took her a few more years than her peers. She had to wait for assistive technology to be available to help her and she completed a lot of her work remotely. But she did get her degree. The extent of Meredith’s cerebral palsy means she cannot speak or walk. She has little control of her hands and has regular seizures. Almost everything Meredith does takes a little longer than an able-bodied person and she needs more support too. 

But like the rest of us, Meredith wants a rewarding job, freedom and respect. She needs a bank account to pay her bills, get around and access entertainment. Technology has provided her some degree of self reliance. But because many businesses disregard or do not consider her access needs, digital technology like software, websites, apps and physical devices are often unavailable to her. At the very least they cause her major access issues.

In this chapter we explore the past, present and future of digital accessibility in Aotearoa. Using Meredith’s story, we will explore the achievements made and the effort our technologists need to make before we have an acceptable level of digital accessibility. The personal experiences described in this chapter are based on multiple conversations with disabled people over the course of the last 20 years and we acknowledge their input.

Digital accessibility

“It’s not just about disabled users being able to access your website — it’s about everyone being able to access your website.”

– Trenton Moss, Webcredible Consultancy

Digital accessibility is the ability for people to access digital technology, software, devices, apps, websites and kiosks, despite any impairments the user may have. To create accessible technology we need to consider the access needs for all potential users. We need to remove barriers by designing appropriately. Not everyone can read a website or use a mouse or hear speech in a video or access a Captcha1 entry code. Designers and developers need to accommodate these needs to help everyone get equitable access to digital technology. 

1 ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart’

Access needs include limitations to visual, physical, auditory, cognitive, linguistic and vestibular functions, as well as the impact of learning impairments, mental health, neurodiversity, language processing and communication issues. These needs can be permanent, such as for people with disabilities like Meredith. They can also be temporary or situational, for people who have limitations for a moment in time, like an injury or while using a phone with one hand. 

In New Zealand approximately 24 per cent of the population has some form of registered disability (Stats NZ 2013). Many of these people will experience difficulties using software and hardware, and the internet, because their needs have not been considered by the designers or developers of the products. There are many more people who have undiagnosed conditions and temporary and situational issues who also struggle.

In the past, Europeans tended to see disability as an individual impairment or flaw. Māori culture, on the other hand, sees disability as just part of the person and whānau diversity (Stace 2021). For equity, we should consider people’s needs and abilities and value their potential contributions, rather than focusing on what they cannot do because of the barriers in our society. We need to see the potential computer programmer rather than the woman, with cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair.

Digital accessibility became a concept in Aotearoa partly as the result of the Human Rights Act 1993 (HRA). The concept is simple — it is unlawful for anyone to discriminate against another person on the grounds of disability, among other things. Therefore, Meredith should be able to access information and services, no matter what technology she needs to use to access it.

Over the years, many disabled people and their advocates have sought improvements to digital services. But there is a lack of knowledge about digital accessibility in Aotearoa. There are also some limitations with the accountability of the HRA. Many of our most popular websites do not meet basic accessibility standards. This in turn means that digital accessibility in Aotearoa is not as good as it should be.

Digital inclusion

Digital inclusion and digital accessibility are sometimes confused, as they both relate to having access to technology. For inclusion, people need affordable connectivity, access to devices, support to learn how to use technology, digital skills for small businesses and robust telecommunications infrastructure (Connelly-Stone 2020). Meredith does not have a paying job and relies on benefits, so the cost of devices and connectivity are highly relevant. She volunteers for a disability charity. She is proud that she earned enough to buy her iPhone by doing research and demonstrating her assistive technology. But she is part of the digital divide statistics. For Meredith, and many other disabled people, housing and income insecurity create additional barriers to being able to afford a device or a connection.

These issues of digital inclusion are important and should not be ignored, but they are being explored elsewhere (Connelly-Stone 2020). In this chapter we focus on the needs of people using technology, those interacting with an interface. Once people are in front of technology, digital accessibility relates to the presence or absence of barriers for people in the interface design. Digital accessibility includes communication needs, access to information, services, products, as well as technical barriers being removed. For example, a Deaf person may be able to chat over a video call using New Zealand Sign Language, but may face difficulties using an online government form with bureaucratic language because English is not their first language. 

In the late twentieth century New Zealand was a leader in creating assistive technology which helps remove barriers by supporting people with access needs. In addition, the New Zealand government has had web accessibility guidelines based on the industry standards Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, in place since 2003 (DIA 2003). The New Zealand government also has an Accessibility Charter, signed by all the main government agencies (MSD 2018). While we had a good start, we still have a long way to go.

Assistive technology

“The one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives. How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better?”

– Steve Krug

From the birth of the web, assistive technology developed alongside other forms of technology, if at perhaps a slightly slower pace. There is now a variety of assistive technology available that can provide a degree of freedom and help even the playing field a little for people with permanent and severe access needs, like Meredith’s.

For example, Meredith has a powered wheelchair that has a joystick and touch screen controller because she has limited fine motor control. She has a touch screen communication device not too dissimilar to the one Stephen Hawking used, and she has her mobile phone on her wheelchair to access the internet. She uses a VoiceOver screen reader on her iPhone to help keep track of where she is on the screen and overcome the ‘head wobbles’ she experiences. The screen reader is inbuilt software that ‘reads’ out what is on the screen, as long as the app developers follow the standards. 

Meredith accesses her assistive technology using a ‘head wand’, basically a stick attached to a headband that she uses to touch the keys and screens of her devices. It takes her a lot of time and effort to write a sentence on her communication device or navigate a website or app on her iPhone. It takes even more time if she encounters websites or control software that are not designed with her needs in mind. But she can often do things herself, which gives her a lot of self-confidence. Other people use different input devices. For example, Stephen Hawking used a single muscle in his cheek to control his devices, and Christopher Reeve used a ‘sip and puff’ controller to navigate around a computer screen.

As mentioned, we started off strong in assistive technology in Aotearoa, with innovations such as DOS-based te reo Māori speech synthesiser created by Blind Low Vision New Zealand (BLVNZ). Despite these best efforts and good will this still has not been replaced by modern devices. Dynamic Controls also created controllers for powered wheelchairs like Meredith’s, and they have been creating world firsts in wheelchair controllers since 1988 (Dynamic 2021). 

HumanWare (formerly Pulse Data) was also a world leading creator of dynamic Braille displays and low vision reading aids (HumanWare 2021). In 2000 the BrailleNote hit the market to widespread acclaim. Four years later their myReader technology pioneered optical character recognition (OCR) processing to help people with low vision read books and written materials (Harrison 2004). Their products still lead the market in assistive technology but now all development is offshore.

Close up of hands using a braille display device.
Braille display.

As mentioned, screen readers are another key piece of assistive technology for people with permanent access needs. While they are predominantly used by people who are blind or have low vision, people like Meredith also use screen readers when they are using digital technology. The speech output helps them keep track of where they are on the screen. Screen readers can also have Braille output if required. 

Job Access With Speech (JAWS), originally released in the late 1980s, has been the predominant screen reader software. However, the open-source alternative NVDA out of Australia, released in 2006, became the leading screen reader in 2019 (WebAim 2019). Many blind and low vision people in New Zealand use NVDA because it is free to use and other software comes with a significant price tag. 

While New Zealand has not specifically been involved in screen reader development, BLVNZ created the aforementioned te reo voice synthesiser, but it never kept up with tech changes. The lack of a modern te reo voice synthesiser causes many problems for screen reader users in Aotearoa. As we incorporate more te reo into our websites and everyday speech we will have even greater need.

BLVNZ were also early converters from tape to digital book content for its members, and it now provides Alexa devices to its members to access talking books and the internet (BLVNZ 2019). Speech recognition software developed back in the 1970s finally got good enough to help.

Dmitry Selitskiy, CEO of Thought-Wired, demonstrating the Nous eye blink technology
Dmitry Selitskiy, CEO of Thought-Wired, demonstrating the Nous eyeblink technology.

Meredith’s health is likely to deteriorate, and she may lose the control that she currently has of her head movements. Assistive technology development and innovation will hopefully develop and help her maintain her independence. Assistive technology is advancing at pace, with innovations such as eye blink controllers (ThoughtWorks 2021) being developed in Auckland. Some people with cerebral palsy or locked-in syndrome are already controlling their computers using their eyes, but it is still very slow and imprecise.

We also have some amazing ‘digital humans’ being developed in New Zealand such as the help bot ‘Jamie’ that ANZ Bank uses. Jamie is an animated artificial avatar that is incredibly lifelike in her looks and manners (Soul Machines 2021). These technologies that have huge possibilities for assisting people with communication barriers, such as Niki, a digital human that can sign New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) (Kara Technologies 2021). Niki may eventually replace the New Zealand Relay app service which connects a Deaf person with a NZSL interpreter or captioning service for communications with other people.

Guidelines

“The single most important thing to understand is that people use websites in very different ways. This doesn’t just mean disabled people using special equipment but everyone — regardless of whether you might think of them as having a ‘special need’.”

– Mel Pedley, Black Widow Web Design

As the web developed, it helped many disabled people do much more for themselves. Access to information, shopping, paying bills and banking became much easier. But at the same time, the world started to realise that technology was also creating some huge barriers for people like Meredith. At the time web developers were unaware of how to make sure that newly created screen readers could access their websites. The potential for disabled people to access information and services was huge. Unfortunately there were many barriers from gaps in web design and lack of understanding of access needs.

In 1995, as the web started to become more mainstream, and Meredith started primary school, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and they created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) (W3C 2021). In 1999 they released the first set of guidelines, WCAG1.0. These guidelines set out what designers and developers needed to do to reduce the barriers for people using assistive technology. 

It took a few more years for the WCAG1.0 to be ratified for use in Aotearoa. But in 2003 the New Zealand government agreed that all government agencies should adhere to these guidelines (DIA 2003). As WCAG has developed, the New Zealand government has kept pace, updating their own guidelines to match the W3C’s a year or so after they are publicly released. Currently WCAG2.1 is in place, and WCAG2.2 is due to be released later in 2021.

However, these requirements only apply to the main government agencies and to their public websites, not their internal intranets or systems. The requirements have also not been translated to electronic documents and there are still difficulties ensuring accessible formats such as HTML are used. They are also not regulations, with no agency checking compliance.

New Zealand’s disability strategy

At the same time as the rise of the internet, New Zealand became more socially responsive to the needs of its people. Public campaigning and political support saw disability added to the HRA as a prohibited ground for discrimination in 2001. The first New Zealand Disability Strategy was also released in 2001 and then revised in 2016.

The strategy is broad and covers many areas of need for people with disabilities. It does include a specific outcome about ‘accessibility’ (Office of Disability Issues 2016). This accessibility outcome is quite broad, but does specifically call out the need for both greater access to government information and technological enhancements like assistive technology. It was a good result for people with disabilities in New Zealand, but still did not go far enough.

UN Convention

“The convention … gives voice, visibility and legitimacy to disabled people and their issues in New Zealand …”

– HRC 2021

It was not until five years after the New Zealand government mandated agencies to use the Government Web Accessibility Standards, and about the same time Meredith was finishing high school in 2007, that the United Nations Convention for Persons with Disabilities was being signed overseas. New Zealand was involved in instigating the convention and was one of the member states that signed. Although it took New Zealand a few years to work through the steps needed to sign the Convention this was a clear indication that something needed to be done to ensure New Zealanders with disabilities were considered in all aspects of life, including technology. 

The preamble of the Convention recognises 

“the importance of accessibility to the physical, social, economic and cultural environment, to health and education and to information and communication, in enabling persons with disabilities to fully enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” (Assembly 2007)

Following the signing of the Convention, a government supported consultation exercise was undertaken. A coalition of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) explored the steps needed to enable the goals of the convention to be realised. Recommendations included awareness training for staff and involvement of disabled people in assessing barriers to participation, and ensuring reasonable accommodation (for modifications) for work.

Accessibility Charter 

“Accessibility is the degree to which anyone can access and use a website using any web browsing technology.”

– Royal National Institute of Blind People, UK 2020

The revised Disability Strategy, greater social awareness, and the convention, all helped move the dial. In 2018 the New Zealand government implemented the Accessibility Charter, created by the Ministry of Social Development, to help address the strategy outcomes. The charter calls for all government agencies to make their information fully accessible over the next five years. By 2020 all major government agencies had signed the accessibility charter. However, very few of these websites are fully compliant with the government’s own web guidelines.

Guideline compliance

Despite the positive start to digital accessibility, New Zealand is now falling behind in terms of compliance with industry standard guidelines. New Zealand websites have generally poor compliance with WCAG increasing the barriers that people with disabilities face when using technology. A recent review of the top 1000 New Zealand websites shows that 97.5 per cent had at least one WCAG2.1 error, and 60 websites had more than 100 errors (Harrison 2021).

New Zealand adopted WCAG early on as part of their own guidelines. How­ever, many New Zealand organisations and businesses outside of government are unaware of the guidelines, let alone aware of how to use them to ensure greater compliance and great accessibility. Greater visibility of the guidelines is needed to encourage greater compliance. Many students who are coming out of university computer science, design and engineering courses are unaware of the guidelines and have received little if any training in applying them to websites or software or products. Some industry groups such as those specialising in CX or UX (customer or user experience) are developing and sharing expertise, but compliance is not uniform or required. These groups also often only look at compliance with guidelines, rather than engaging in a more comprehensive review of accessibility that includes usability testing with people with access needs.

Legislation

“Aimed at giving all people equal opportunities and preventing unfair treatment on the basis of irrelevant personal characteristics. The Human Rights Act covers discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, religious belief, colour, race, ethnic or national origins, disability, age, political opinion, employment status, family status or sexual orientation.”

– Justice Government NZ 2020

Human Rights Act 1993

There is also a lack of robust legislation that covers everyone, not just the government. Unlike other European and English-speaking countries like the UK and US and even Australia, New Zealand has inadequate legislation to encourage companies to make their websites, apps, software, and other interfaces accessible. Our Human Rights Act does not go far enough, only mandating government agencies, rather than all businesses, to comply with the guidelines and consider access needs when designing their interfaces (DIA 2021). The HRA requires disabled people to be the watchdogs, rather than supported disabled people to get a result.

Taking action with the HRA is time-consuming and the burden falls mainly on the complainant to prove discrimination. Someone who believes they are being discriminated against can complain to the Human Rights Commission. But they have to wait to see if their complaint will go to the Human Rights Tribunal, and most matters are dealt with by private mediation with confidential settlements made between the complainant and the defendant. This does not result in barriers being removed. Instead the cycle gets repeated again and does not result in systemic change.

US lawsuits

In the US, on the other hand, legislation is used much more frequently by people with disabilities to hold businesses accountable. For example, Domino’s was sued by a blind man called Guillermo Robles who was unable to order food using their website or app (Higgins 2019). Domino’s fought the lawsuit which not only cost them money but also harmed their reputation. The lawsuit was drawn out over years with their reputation taking another blow each time the story hit the news. In addition, the last few years has seen a significant rise in digital accessibility law suits in the US, with a 23 per cent increase in 2020 with a total of 3555 cases in just one year (Taylor 2020). Businesses can ill afford the reputational or economic cost.

Accessibility Act, NZ

In general, New Zealanders are not particularly litigious, most likely thanks in part to the Accident Compensation Act (1972 and following). However, a new legislative and regulatory system is needed in New Zealand to set accessibility standards for everyone. This will put the power in the hands of the disabled person affected by poorly designed systems. We need to create a positive duty on the public sector, civil society and the private sector to act on their obligations to disabled people and other groups with access needs.

To address the lack of robust legislation in New Zealand, recent initiatives by a consortium of disability groups has led to the formation of the Access Alliance (Access Alliance 2019). The Alliance is lobbying the New Zealand government for an Accessibility Act, a more robust and focused piece of legislation that can drive positive change. And there seems to be genuine interest in making this a reality with the ‘Accelerating Accessibility’ proposal paper due to go before Cabinet in 2021.

Business benefits of accessibility

“The most important blind visitor to your website is Google! In the same way that creating accessible web pages helps disabled person access your content, it also helps Google index your pages so that the right people can find your service or product.”

– Jim Byrne, Guild of Accessible Web Designers

Unfortunately, many New Zealand companies do not prioritise or integrate accessibility into their product development life cycle. This often results in having to go back and fix digital accessibility which is cost-prohibitive. It is widely acknowledged that integration of accessibility into all aspects of business practice, notably procurement and day-to-day practice, can provide significant long-term business benefit (Sharon Rush 2018).

UX and SEO

Accessible solutions are not as far off good design and robust development as you might think. Many of the simplest changes and design decisions (colour, font, spacing etc.) can have the greatest impact. Not only does adhering to the accessibility guidelines improve access for Meredith, but if we get the details right, then the overall user experience is improved for everyone. If you are a stressed and time-poor executive who encounters a well designed website that considers the restrictions caused by being stressed and time poor, then your overarching user experience will be better.

In addition, when we get basic accessibility right then we can also get better results from search engines. For example, alternative text for images helps screen reader users know that there is an image and what it is. That same alternative text is also used by search engines to decide which images to serve up in your search results.

Simple economics

By ignoring digital accessibility, companies run the risk of missing out on previously untapped market share and on savings from reduced customer service costs (Purple Pound 2021). Building accessibility in as you create products is much cheaper than having to go back and retrofit. Also, when legislation changes, and businesses face litigation, they will face potentially expensive rework. If New Zealand businesses do not integrate accessibility into development processes, from discovery through to delivery, they are missing out on benefits.

International markets

New Zealand is also an exporter of software with some large companies based here having huge markets elsewhere in the world. In fact, New Zealand software exports are outstripping our sales of wine (O’Neil 2020). Private businesses in Aotearoa are not mandated to meet the minimum accessibility standards, while many of the countries we are exporting to do require all digital products to meet certain accessibility standards. We should be doing more to ensure our software meets international requirements.

Reputation

In 2021, new graduates have more social awareness than ever before and want to do meaningful work. Companies who prioritise accessibility are more likely to attract and retain staff as they show they care. And remember Domino’s? The impact of poor press can be huge. It is also clear that the disability communities like to discuss which website or app is more accessible than another. It is not only them, but also their friends and families who will buy based on reputation (Purple Pound 2021). In Aotearoa our 24 per cent of the population with disabilities equates to about 1.5 million people all choosing on the basis of accessibility. That is a lot of lost potential revenue.

The COVID-19 effect

Following the surge in demand for technological solutions during COVID-19, many digital divide and digital inclusion issues became forefront of our minds. Numerous people, such as Meredith and other low-income people across the country, struggled to get online to access education and other basic services including food deliveries during lock-down.

COVID-19 pushed many businesses online. Small businesses needed to spin up websites to continue to sell despite the restrictions. They went online so quickly that many did not consider accessibility of the systems they were putting in place. Fortunately, disabled persons’ organisations and community volunteers helped many disabled people get online during lockdown, some for their first time ever. 

In addition, the remote resources many students had been asking about for decades suddenly became possible as the entire nation’s student population needed online resources. COVID-19 pushed education online like never before. Meredith and others who struggled to attend lectures because of mobility issues, spent years lobbying to get online access to course materials. Most tertiary providers said it was not possible to provide online resources for people with access needs. But COVID-19 also changed this and now students with disabilities are often more able to participate.

Reasons for our immaturity

“If disabled people were truly heard, an explosion of knowledge of the human body and psyche would take place.”

– Susan Wendell

It is concerning that given our innovative Kiwi nature, and that we were a world leader in assistive technology, we have slipped so far. One possible reason for our immaturity is a lack of awareness of digital accessibility and the impact that poor interface design has on people. In addition, there is a lack of specific education and trained digital accessibility professionals.

Lack of awareness is considered a leading reason for our immature approach to the implementation of digital accessibility and its impact on potential customers. There is presently a lack of targeted accessibility education domestically. Accessi­bility also receives little or no instruction in many digital courses. If included at all, the concept of accessibility often receives only cursory instruction as a separate topic rather than an integrated part of design and development. As a result, there is a shortage of professionals in New Zealand tech who understand accessibility to a high degree.

Lived experience

Another reason for the lack of awareness is that many people have not spent time with people with disabilities. We also have low employment rates for people with disabilities in the tech sector, which means people may not have seen someone use a screen reader, or a communication device. While several companies in New Zealand have people with disabilities in their design or development teams, this is not the norm.

Meredith (and others like her) has been instrumental in helping developers become more aware of digital accessibility by demonstrating how she uses her devices. During sessions like usability testing or demonstrations, developers who have previously been resistant to focusing on implementing accessibility are confronted with the barriers Meredith faces in using the app they have been programming. Incorporating people with disabilities into our workforce and usability testing will help raise awareness.

Procurement

New Zealand businesses are also often unaware of how to purchase accessible solutions or accessibility services. Government Procurement Rule 61 states that purchasers must pay attention to web standards (Rule 61: Web standards 2021). But this does not help government agencies or businesses know what they should be looking for or how to pay attention to web standards, and international suppliers sometimes need to be used to meet the requirements.

Recent changes in New Zealand Government Procurement rules now require public service departments, such as the New Zealand Police and New Zealand Defence Force, which outsource web development work, to include in their Notices of Procurement a precondition for the work to comply with the mandatory requirements in the latest version of the New Zealand government web standards. Other agencies should include this precondition in their Notices of Procurement for web development work. This requirement may not apply to work that is outsourced by other methods.

Just stating that the work must comply does not necessarily help the purchaser know how to check or ensure that it does comply. Procurement may have specified accessibility as a requirement and the vendor might have promised that it was accessible and compliant, but how can that be tested? We are missing the discernment to review and understand what we are buying and the teeth to enforce it among businesses. 

A vendor should be able to prove that the product they are delivering meets the guidelines, either through usability testing with people with access needs, or expert reviews against the guidelines. A lack of understanding and information of what good looks like means that agencies and mainstream businesses run the risk of buying technology that does not meet the standards. We should provide more information about what good looks like, and how to measure it. 

These issues are further compounded by less-than-ideal training, which contributes to design issues resulting in high rework costs for business. The only course focusing on Digital Accessibility in New Zealand is Victoria University’s micro-credential course. From a web perspective, the most pervasive of technologies, we are lagging behind in ensuring that all people can access technology. We have moved much of government interaction online and yet we still have a huge digital divide where many people are unable to access technology.

The future

“Accessibility is not a feature; it is a social trend.”

– Antonio Santos

With increasingly pervasive technology, approximately a quarter of the population having access needs (Statistics NZ 2013), an aging population (MSD 2021), and vital services such as banking going online, we must consider digital accessibility from the beginning of the development life cycle of any technology. If we do not, we are excluding a significant proportion of the population from using our services and buying our goods. 

Our aging population

As we age, many of our functions start to deteriorate — physical, cognitive, auditory and visual. With New Zealand’s population aging we need to consider how our older adults will cope with technology now and in the future (MSD 2021). The removal of cheques, the closure of banks and greater reliance on technology for banking is having a huge negative impact on our elders (Gullery 2021). Some elders are working longer, and some have more disposable income than before. Others find their benefit does not stretch far enough and are facing housing insecurity and poverty and are unable to afford access to technology. We need to think about what our elders need and how they access technology.

Legislation 

Hopefully the future will bring improved, more robust and accountable legislation. When the legislation is in place, businesses will need to be more aware of their responsibilities and be better supported to meet their obligations through awareness and education. It is unclear when it will happen, what it will look like and how it will be rolled out, but it is clear that it will come. It is hoped that it will be the stick that is needed to get movement around digital accessibility.

Guidelines

There is also a shift for the WCAG. Currently, the guidelines are difficult to use and focus more on technology solutions. WCAG3.0 is a shift to more need-based guidelines, which may help people understand more about the ‘why’. They will also be slightly broader and consider more cognitive needs than the current WCAG2.1. 

Next steps

We need to raise awareness that digital accessibility is needed and help people understand why. We should teach our designers and developers how to implement accessibility by including more focus on accessibility in education. Government and businesses should recruit disabled people to work in tech to bring that lived experience into design and testing teams. We need to include more people with access needs in usability testing of products before they are released. We could also incentivise businesses to get the basics right.

The world is changing and technology needs to change with it. Our social conscience is becoming more pronounced and if we can do better, we should. Economically, many around the world are struggling to differentiate and being the accessible alternative is one way to do that.

Conclusion

“It is a waste of time to be angry about my disability. One has to get on with life and I haven’t done badly. People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”

– Steven Hawking

There are so many reasons for the tech world to care about how people like Meredith can access technology, most importantly that it is the right thing to do. But given that it also makes economic sense to improve interfaces, businesses should be thinking about this. Ensuring that New Zealand software and digital services meet international guidelines helps our reputation as a supplier to the international market. As we get older too, we may find we or our parents desperately need the digital accessibility we are talking about.

We must help New Zealand tech businesses understand why we should be weaving accessibility into the fabric of everything we do. We must teach accessibility to our up-and-coming technologists, teach the designers and developers about why it is important and how to make it better. We must employ more people like Meredith into mainstream tech roles. We must use the carrot of economics and the stick of legislation to encourage businesses to move. Digital accessibility in New Zealand is not as good as it should be. We can and we should do better, for Meredith and the many others like her.

It is not a simple space; it is not a one-size-fits-all solution; we cannot teach accessibility in an afternoon. Getting digital accessibility right takes time and understanding. It is a journey, not a destination. But each of us needs to take a first step towards a more equitable technological future. For Meredith and all the people who have access needs, it is important that we all make a difference. It is time for more robust legislation and for each business to take ownership of their responsibility to provide equitable access to information and services.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to the whole team at Access Advisors, my significant others who know who they are, and all the wonderful people who have helped us understand why accessibility is so important, most especially Meredith.

Dr Chandra Harrison is the Managing Director of digital accessibility consultancy Access Advisors. She has over 20 years of experience in accessibility, usability and UX. She has worked in NZ for a variety of government agencies, financial institutions and NGOs; in the US working for Siemens; and the UK working for the likes of Qualcomm, Vodafone and the BBC. Chandra returned home to NZ six years ago bringing a passion for helping people understand and implement digital accessibility and usability. Access Advisors’ mission is to support businesses in Aotearoa to incorporate accessibility awareness throughout discovery, design, development and delivery. Chandra is a published author, lecturer and conference organiser and spent several years in London as the accessibility rep and President of the UK User Experience Professional Association (UXPA).

References

Access Alliance (2019). Access. Retrieved from The Access Alliance: www.accessalliance.org.nz

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