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"We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability." Stevie Wonder, 2016 GRAMMY Awards

The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

Digital inclusion doesn’t quite pull on the heartstrings like some other human rights campaigns. Many people just don’t know enough about it. Yet it’s an issue that affects over one billion people across the globe who have a disability, as well as plenty more with age-related impairments.

It’s all about ensuring inclusive participation and access to information for all people, no matter what their abilities or circumstances. Think about some of the physical barriers that prevent people with disabilities from experiencing the world in the same way as others. A building with only stairs, for example, is going to be impossible for someone in a wheelchair to access. The same concept applies to digital accessibility. If websites or other digital media are poorly designed and built, they can prevent some people from using them. Just as a ramp can be an accessible alternative to stairs, websites and other digital assets can be built in a way that enables people with disabilities or age-related impairments to access them.

Here, we’re going to introduce you to digital inclusion, how it applies in an Australian context, and some handy tools to help you along the way.

A global organisation dedicated to web accessibility

World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C WAI)

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international community where member organisations, a full-time staff, and the public work together to develop web standards. Led by web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and CEO Jeffrey Jaffe, W3C's mission is to lead the web to its full potential.

The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) brings together people from industry, disability organisations, government, and research labs from around the world to develop guidelines and resources to help make the web accessible to people with auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual disabilities. You can find out more about web accessibility and why it’s important from WAI’s introduction to web accessibility.

To understand accessibility in the real world, WAI also provides an overview of how people with disabilities use the web.

WAI’s global framework for accessibility

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

W3C WAI developed a technical global standard for web content accessibility called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, currently version 2.2 (WCAG 2.2). WCAG is a technical standard that is most useful to web developers and those involved in the maintenance of web content. It has 13 guidelines that are organised under four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. For each guideline, there are testable success criteria, which are at three levels: A, AA, and AAA.

Accessibility requirements for Australian government

Digital Service Standard (DSS)

In 2015, the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) became responsible for whole-of-government web guidance, which resulted in the launch of their Digital Service Standard (DSS). The DTO then became part of the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) in October 2016, which was established to guide, oversee and drive the Government’s ambitious digital and ICT agendas, including the DSS.

With a strong emphasis on user-centred design and inclusive services, the DSS establishes the criteria that all Australian digital government services must meet to ensure they are technically compliant against WCAG 2.1, as well as simpler, faster and easier for everyone to use. 

Document accessibility

Often an area of some confusion, let’s delve into document accessibility requirements.

Portable Document Format (PDF)

PDF accessibility is covered under W3C WAI’s PDF Techniques for WCAG 2.0. However, due to the lack of support for PDF in mobile environments, it is still not considered an independent accessible format. This means that although PDFs can be made fully accessible to WCAG 2.0 standards, it may still be necessary to provide the same information in another format, ideally HTML.

Microsoft Word documents

Although Word documents can be optimised for accessibility, they aren’t covered under WCAG 2.0. This means that if you publish a Word document to a website, it is necessary for you to provide the same information in another format that complies with WCAG 2.0.

So, why is it still important to learn how to create accessible Word documents? Because often, a Word document is just the start of a bigger process. A Word document might be converted to HTML or PDF; it might be published to a website as an attachment; it might be emailed to a colleague or customer with a disability; it might be passed on to a group of people whose abilities you’re not sure of. You need to ensure the document you’ve created is fit for possible conversion or distribution.

Document format usage situations

We recommend using the following situations as a guide to publishing documents online:

  • If a PDF is accessible to WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards, and it is highly likely to be accessed from a desktop computer with appropriate accessibility support, it should be accompanied by a HTML cover page.
  • If a PDF is accessible to WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards, but is likely to be accessed from a mobile device, it should be accompanied by a compliant HTML alternative or accessible Word document.
  • If a PDF is not accessible to WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards, it must be accompanied by a compliant HTML alternative.
  • If a Word document has been optimised for accessibility, it must be accompanied by a compliant PDF or HTML alternative.
  • If a Word document has not been optimised for accessibility, it must be accompanied by a compliant HTML alternative.

Accessibility requirements for all Australian organisations

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises access to information and communications technologies, including the web, as a basic human right.

To enable people with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, all Australian organisations are required to take appropriate measures to ensure access to information and communications by identifying and eliminating obstacles and barriers to accessibility.

Disability Discrimination Act (DDA)

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA), the Australian Human Rights Commission released its World Wide Web Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes, which provides information about accessibility and legal issues, as well as advice about how web designers and website owners can minimise the possibility of disability discrimination. Requirements under the DDA apply to any individual or organisation developing a website or other web resource in Australia, or placing or maintaining a web resource on an Australian server.

Complaints are made to the Commission for breaches of the DDA. In considering a disability discrimination complaint about web accessibility, the Commission takes into consideration the extent to which the best available advice on accessibility has been obtained and followed. A complaint is much less likely to succeed if reasonable steps have been taken to address accessibility during the design stage.

ICT Procurement Standard

Australia has established a minimum standard for the procurement of accessible ICT, which will support access to ICT for people with disabilities and provide ICT procurers with much-needed accessibility guidance and certainty.

Driven by Standards Australia in conjunction with the Department of Finance, the new Australian Standard is a direct adoption of European Standard EN 301 549 V3.2.1: “Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe”.

A demonstration of Australia’s commitment to accessible technology, the Standard will ensure ICT products and services can be used by everyone, including those with disability.

The Standard can be used by the public and private sectors as a framework to determine the technical specifications for the procurement of accessible ICT, such as websites, software, digital devices, documents and support services.

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