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Creating tools to drive an accessible future

16 June 2016

Technology is an integral aspect of our world. It touches nearly every activity in our lives. But despite this, not everyone is able to access it.

To ensure everyone can fully embrace technology and the benefits it provides, accessibility and inclusion must be a key part of the product lifecycle.

Addressing inclusion as an afterthought can be highly expensive, both financially and time-wise. It’s therefore essential to build in accessibility in the early stages of product development, from the ground up.

Whether it’s a hearing, mobility, cognitive, or vision-related disability, or an age-related impairment, accessibility is a challenge for many people. Globally, there are over 1 billion people with disability, and the ageing population is on the rise.

As we as a society move online, more and more technology including websites, native apps and documents need to be accessible. Also, in an increasingly non-tactile world, devices like mobile phones and EFTPOS machines now have fewer buttons making touchscreen navigation a vital consideration.

As accessibility specialists, we at Vision Australia have focused on encouraging web developers to create accessible documents, so that when they are loaded on a website, everyone can access the information that is intended for them.

Most organisations use Microsoft Word as their primary program to create documents. In order to be accessible, Microsoft Word documents need to have a structure built into them. The most effective way to do this is to change the approach to creating raw source documents so that accessibility is considered at the earliest possible stage of design.

After running courses on accessibility in Microsoft Office and Adobe we found awareness of accessibility features was low and people found it difficult to understand the large amount of information required to create accessible material.

So, with the support of a grant from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), Vision Australia developed the Document Accessibility Toolbar (DAT) to put accessibility construction at the fingertips of content authors.

Importantly, the DAT also helps content authors and users to evaluate the accessibility of a Microsoft Word document. This opens the door for people to self-advocate to organisations who do not make their information accessible to all.

The DAT will be launched on Thursday to mark the 2015 International Day of People with Disability. The DAT includes a number of standard Microsoft Word functions, such as adding bullets and lists. It also incorporates a number of bespoke tools that we developed, including a colour contrast analyser and automated mark-up for tables to simplify the process of creating accessible documents.

The DAT does not use any external code (e.g. it does not require a connection to the internet). It uses Visual Basic for Applications code stored in the Word template and makes calls to libraries in the Windows environment. Development involved a rigorous process of iterative design, from requirements gathering to repeated rounds of technical and end-user evaluation. The only limitations are with the Microsoft Word environment itself.

The DAT has been released as a fully functional and stable beta version. We are striving to increase its support and are seeking feedback on additional enhancements we can apply. We also recognise that bugs may be identified across the different versions of Microsoft Word and Microsoft operating systems, and encourage end-users to provide feedback on these.

The DAT is a continuation of Vision Australia’s technological development program, which began with the Web Accessibility Toolbar (WAT). This is how I heard of the organisation in the UK, 11 years ago. WAT continues to be an important resource for the web industry and is still responsible for driving traffic to the Vision Australia website.

The DAT has received a positive response from government, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and leading businesses, including Microsoft. We have already had enquiries on translating the DAT into other languages. A paid eLearning course will also be available to support the roll-out throughout organisations who implement the toolbar so that their staff can fully appreciate how it can add value to the work they do.

My hope is that the DAT marries the supply and demand for accessible information, where organisations create accessible content and consumers of accessible information can easily demand it.

Technology is levelling the playing-field. With a little bit of thought at the beginning of the product development process and strong education, we can drive technology to truly include people with disability and age-related impairments.

(The DAT supports Microsoft Word 2010–2016 running on Microsoft Windows.)

Neil King is the National Manager Digital Access at Vision Australia.

With more than 15 years’ experience in Australia and Europe, Neil’s passion for inclusive design is widely recognised. Leading a team of consultants who provide training, testing and remediation of digital products, Digital Access has become a world-class consultancy at the forefront of the accessibility industry in Australia.

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