By Jessica Sharma
Why does universal design matter, and how does it drive citizen engagement? How is the private sector approaching accessibility? What are some of the leading best practices that the government can learn from their partners in industry? What does the future hold for accessible IT?
On December 13, the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT), supported by the General Services Administration (GSA), hosted a facilitated “Accessibility TechTalk” at Microsoft’s Innovation and Policy Center in Washington, DC to explore these issues. During the event, federal and industry executives from across the technology sector joined forces to share experiences, learn from each other, and discuss the future of accessible IT.
Setting Best Practices
The session kicked off with a lively discussion about the importance of universal design in developing accessible technology. With modernization challenges such as mobile security and generational shifts, developers have an imperative to design products that have a broad sense of functions. If solutions are designed with all users in mind, and encompass the needs of people with disabilities, more users benefit overall.
Universal design is the mode to help companies develop accessible solutions.
Improving citizen engagement is a goal for both the government and the tech industry. Involving the user (i.e. citizen) in the design process generally results in better products. Attendees agreed that universal design is the mode to help companies develop accessible solutions. Companies must adopt a user-centric design approach throughout development, rather than reactively respond to user needs once a product has been launched. While agile development methods can create challenges from an accessibility standpoint, teams can use these techniques to highlight accessibility issues and apply user-centered design techniques from the beginning.
Offering some industry perspective, one Fortune 500 company challenged others to gauge how accessible they really are and to set measurable goals for improvement. With the Revised 508 Standards coming into effect on January 18, 2018, and the common appearance of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 in procurement and solicitation documents, compliance remains an important factor for accessible IT. Yet, both federal and industry representatives emphasized that the Section 508 standards should be seen as the starting line, not the finish line.
Section 508 standards should be seen as the starting line, not the finish line.
Another recommendation was for the government to involve senior management, executives, and policymakers in setting accessibility strategy. Without executive buy-in, an agency will struggle to embed an inclusive mindset into its culture. Without communication from senior executives echoing the need for accessible IT, agencies will ultimately fail to make accessibility a priority.
The event also highlighted challenges and areas for improvement by both industry and government. While companies are developing innovative accessibility solutions using artificial intelligence and virtual reality, participants recognize that the journey to accessibility has only just begun. Though Section 508 defines compliance standards, there isn’t enough enforcement of 508 across the field. Standards should not be seen in isolation, but as part of the larger conversation around IT modernization.
Participants further pointed out the misguided assumption that technology alone solves accessibility challenges. Overreliance on technology means that individual user needs and access requirements aren’t considered in the design process. If accessibility was emphasized in higher education curricula, future developers and engineers would be better qualified to design solutions with accessibility in mind. The majority of TechTalk attendees agreed that greater training and awareness for technical and non-technical teams would help to push accessibility forward.
Accessibility is about improving access to systems, not limiting it.
Participants also discussed how Federal IT strategy is focused on modernization, upgrading legacy systems, moving to the cloud, and investing in cybersecurity. Cybersecurity, while a necessity, aims to limit access and protect information. However, the idea of building technology that is accessible for all relies on everyone being able to access tools and information. Several TechTalk participants emphasized that if the government invested a fraction of what it does on cybersecurity into improving access to systems, agencies would be better equipped to succeed with accessibility.
The event wrapped up with participants reflecting on key takeaways. It was clear that government and industry face similar issues when it comes to tackling accessibility. Moving forward, recommendations from the session include:
- To shift how people approach accessibility, more public forums need to be created to incite citizen engagement.
- Whether part of the design or testing phase, companies need to put the user at the center of the discussion.
- Testing for accessibility provides a baseline standard and helps to better integrate users into the process.
Most importantly, participants highlighted that accessibility is a necessity, not a burden. To keep momentum, we need to broaden the mandate to provide universal access, and spread the word that accessible technology, designed for all, is the future.