Ensuring access for all in the digital age

When people think of accessibility, physical accessibility often comes to mind: ramps, guide dogs and the wheelchair symbol. What is considered less often is how people with disabilities interact with digital technology. In an increasingly digitised society, it’s important to consider how people are able to access content and information that is relevant to them and in a manner that is useable for them. Professor Catherine Bridge and her team ask, what is accessibility and what can we do to make digital content more accessible for potential users and clients, our colleagues, and even friends and family?

Photo by Emile Perron on Unsplash

What is accessibility?

Accessibility means many things to different people, depending on the particular impairment they may have and what accommodations they find useful to address them. Two people with the same impairment may have different preferences based on their own experiences and use cases. This can make it overwhelming to consider what needs to be done to make content accessible for someone with little experience in this area. Thankfully, there is a simpler way to consider accessibility:

Accessibility is about removing barriers to access for a place or thing to ensure all people have equal access and opportunity, no matter what impairments or disabilities they may have.

In terms of digital accessibility, this involves making sure content is available in a manner that does not significantly advantage or disadvantage one group of users over another. For the purposes of this blog we’re going to look at web accessibility and PDF accessibility.

Web accessibility

With the rise of the digital age and social media, we’re consuming digital content at increasing rates. To ensure that no one is left behind during this transition to online, we need to consider how accessible websites are for different user groups. To make this simpler, a set of guidelines have been developed by the World Wide Web Consortium known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines have been accepted as an ISO standard for web accessibility and covers elements from navigation to visual parameters to alternate methods of displaying content.

A counterpoint to accessibility is usability. While the WCAG focuses on accessibility the Usability Guidelines (developed by United States Department of Health and Human Services) focuses on ease of use. There is a large amount of overlap between the two guidelines but sometimes applying one without consideration of the other can cause frustration to the users of your website.

PDF Accessibility

Perhaps considered even less often than web accessibility is document accessibility. In terms of digital content, PDFs are often considered to be the preferred format for completed documents that need sharing and, when created to the relevant ISO standard, is considered to be technically accessible. However, while improvements to screen reader technology have been made, in particular on mobile devices, the PDF format is not generally considered to be accessible.

PDF accessibility relates much more to the underlying features of a document that are not apparent unless specifically sought out. As such it is important that the base documents are created with as many areas addressed before generating a PDF. Once that is complete the method of generating a PDF needs to be considered. Unfortunately, not all PDF generators are created equal and as such depending on what software is available, PDF remediation software may be needed to fix issues. In fact, at the time of writing even the built-in generator for Microsoft Word does not create accessible PDFs, missing some fundamental elements needed to earn that title.

So how do we do better?

As mentioned, there are relevant standards to follow for both web and PDF accessibility. There are also free-to-use tools to assess the accessibility of each, but starting out can be daunting.

An audit of both websites and PDFs found issues with accessibility. This is a failure of execution but not of intent, and merely serves to highlight just how difficult it can be to be accessible. To aid both web designers and website owners, and document creators and their managers in working towards greater accessibility a pair of guides for websites and PDFs were created to help inform content creators on best practice, the pitfalls of not meeting the relevant guidelines and how to evaluate content for accessibility.

Professor Catherine Bridge is a researcher in the Faculty of Built Environment at the University of New South Wales and Founder and Director of the Home Modification Information Clearinghouse. She was a Chief Investigator on APO’s recent Linked Semantic Platforms Australian Research Council grant.

Kimberley Andersen is a researcher in the Faculty of Built Environment at the University of New South Wales, exploring how design elements affect people who are not usually included, such as people with disabilities and older Australians.

Helmut Hoss is a web developer for the Home Modification Information Clearinghouse and manages the website in a manner that complies with accessibility standards.