Even though his motor neuron disease had left him all, but completely immobile, world-famous scientist Stephen Hawking made a sensational TED talk in 2008: the voice emulator that Professor Hawking used is now well-recognized for it made the impossible possible by transferring muscle signals into words. This example shows how technology and other developments in IT can help people with disabilities to gain independence, open new opportunities, and transform their lives.
With the most essential services now existing online, making web content accessible to people with disabilities (a notion commonly referred to as ‘Accessibility’) also gains attention. Web developers around the world created and approved accessibility principles, methodologies, and standards in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
At UNDP Mongolia Accelerator Lab, we believe that accessibility is a gateway for people with disabilities to develop their digital skills and to be able to participate actively in all aspects of life which are becoming increasingly digitalized. Leading with the purpose to learn about the accessibility situation in Mongolia, as well as for testing out ways of introducing these concepts, we conducted two experiments.
The First Experiment
Our first experiment looked at the accessibility of existing websites and applications. In association with the Mongolian National Federation of the Blind, we first chose a sample of seven widely used websites and applications, such as government services, shopping, banking, news, and entertainment.
Then, we developed an accessibility testing methodology that involved people testing each website for common accessibility related issues. To ensure the consistency of the findings, each site was checked by three different individuals, and then finally were run with special accessibility software.
The testing revealed that the selected websites attempted to make their interface more user friendly, but nevertheless, when it came to individuals with special needs, there were still certain issues that needed to be resolved. For instance, the color scheme on some of the websites may not have presented an issue for a visually abled person, but for someone with some level of visual impairment it had the potential to create difficulty to differentiate between the background and the actual text. This kind of issue could have been a simple oversight in the design, but nonetheless it is a problem that presents a barrier for anyone with a visual impairment in accessing the website.
In other instances, some websites contained a lot of images and diagrams as the main form of information. However, the problem is that without proper text labels, assistive technologies such as screen readers are not able to read these images, and therefore, visually impaired people were likely to miss out on crucial parts of information. In other words, the website is not as effective for delivering the information in creative and effective way to people with a visual disability.
A similar issue to the above is when a website contains a lot of video and audio content with no supplementary texts, subtitles, or sign language, meaning that those with hearing issues cannot decipher what is being conveyed. Thus, the website is not as effective for people with a hearing disability as it could be.
The Second Experiment
Given the breadth of accessibility issues, our second experiment was aimed at coming up with solutions. We focused on front-end developers and providing them with the skills and know-how to be able solve accessibility issues, such as in the examples provided above.
We sourced Deque Software, an Indian company that focuses on accessibility testing and skills building, and we organized a 3-day training event on the latest web and native accessibility features. We invited the developers of the tested websites and applications to attend the training. During the training sessions, the participants shared that they had never understood why complaints were being manifested from users, as they felt the website they had designed was running perfectly, in a technical sense.
However, through the training event they began to understand where these dissatisfactions were emanating from. Through physical testing of the accessibility features of their websites and applications, they discovered that a step that would take a normally an abled person 10 minutes to achieve would require almost an hour for a person with limited abilities.
As a result of this realization, they were thankful to us for guiding them, and giving them the tools to recognize techniques and step-by-step solutions to be able to improve accessibility of the websites and applications they had designed for people with disabilities. Furthermore, they requested to have such training on a continual basis, so that more developers could learn and apply accessibility in their work and develop websites and applications truly for all users.