In an increasingly self-service economy, how are we ever going to bridge the gulf between what we are expected to achieve and what we are actually capable of? There still exists a digital gap and it is vital to understand the ways in which digital exclusion might be remedied in the future.
For a long time, the debate around accessibility has focused on issues that are specific to the UK’s 12 million disabled people.
Despite the Equality Act (2010) and previously the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), the law has not succeeded in preventing 95% of websites being inaccessible to disabled people who are using access technologies due to their impairment.
But testing a website after it has been built, or pursuing legal action to ensure that all digital content includes "alt-tags" for people who use a screen reader, is not succeeding in promoting a digitally inclusive environment.
As high-end technology begins to dominate shopping, entertainment, work and communication, as well as citizenship itself, age and disability are progressively barring people from full participation economically, socially and even politically.
That is AbilityNet has launched Mind the Digital Gap – a strategy document that takes a fresh look at the obstacles faced by the huge numbers of people who simply struggle at the digital interface with technologies that are badly designed and don't meet their needs.
Highlighting the business case for accessibility - a potential spending power of some £80bn - may not be enough to win the hearts and minds of big business
Nigel Lewis, AbilityNet
We urgently need to recognise the social and economic costs of this digital gap, and identify clear actions to begin closing it.
While organisations like AbilityNet, Go ON UK and its disability focused partner, Go ON Gold, are making great strides to close the gap between the computer literate and the technologically disenfranchised, the gulf is more far-reaching than that.
Those who commission and build online services, operating systems, user interfaces and digital devices should be encouraged to put a user-centric approach at the heart of the design process. By incorporating a core set of inclusion technologies across all platforms, products could and would appeal to the widest range of consumers.
Access technologies – text to speech, speech to text, magnification etc – already exist. To deploy them as standard, in a user-friendly format, should not be a big task.
If building in functionality like "task intelligence" and the option to customise an interface to suit individual preference, cannot be easily integrated, the solution lies in platform extensibility – the ability to link to a smarter device that can offer these features.
Highlighting the business case for accessibility - a potential spending power of some £80bn - and the security of legal compliance may not be enough to win the hearts and minds of "big business" however, and we are urging government to offer tax incentives over a limited period to accelerate the process. This would focus attention on the benefits and create a tipping point for organisations to implement new or updated solutions.
Combined with other measures such as closer partnerships between business and other sectors and a commitment to embed inclusive design at all levels of the IT profession, we are proposing a radically new joined up approach to digital inclusion through design for all.
Nigel Lewis (pictured) is CEO of national digital accessibility charity, AbilityNet. The full strategy is available for download on the AbilityNet website.
This was first published in December 2012