Making sure that websites, apps and devices are accessible and inclusive for everyone is imperative to a successful digital economy and vital for its disabled citizens. But who cares more about an inclusive digital future - commercial companies like Apple or the UK government itself?
The importance of digital inclusion
This week, containing both a general election and the week-long Apple World-Wide Developers’ Conference (WWDC), is the perfect time to consider the importance of accessibility (probably more usefully thought of as ‘inclusive design’ as it benefits everyone and not just those users with disabilities or impairments) and how much importance it is afforded by these two organisations.
I wanted to use the word ‘parties’ here but that’s probably not the best choice when we’re mentioning a general election – and in fact whichever political party is in power for the coming few years is irrelevant here. What is going to be significant is the emphasis they give to this vital element of a digitally-driven society.
In several earlier posts I have spelt out the importance of inclusive design and how, in this mobile-first world, we’re all temporarily disabled by our environment on a daily basis. I won’t go over all the arguments here, suffice to say that assuming that accessibility is only for disabled people is short-sighted in the extreme (being blind I’m allowed to make puns like that) and I’d point you at a recent LinkedIn Pulse article of mine for a good summing up – it's called Extreme computing calls for inclusive design for us all.
So let’s get down to brass tacks: which of these two notable institutions care more about this critical consideration that is so fundamental a factor in our digital future? Let’s take a brief look at each in turn.
Apple – a long history of championing accessibility
The importance that Apple has placed on accessibility, on making their products and services useable for the broadest possible audience, is legendary – most particularly (but certainly not exclusively) amongst the disabled community. Just glancing at this week’s WWDC schedule we see no fewer than eighteen separate sessions on accessibility. This is absolutely no surprise to me whatsoever. It reflects the huge and on-going efforts that Apple lavish on accessibility across all their products.
In an interview for Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) last month a blind blogger, James Rath, interviewed the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, about accessibility and why Apple gives it such a high priority. It’ll leave you in no doubt as to Apple’s passion and commitment to inclusive design. It’ll be 12 minutes and 33 seconds of your life very well spent.
In the above interview Tim Cook speaks of how, in the past, people have questioned why Apple spend so much on accessibility. He may well have been recalling the occasion when an investor on a quarterly Apple earnings call very pointedly asked why Apple was spending all this money on accessibility (in other words on these poor disabled people who surely aren’t worth it) and Tim very calmly but with obvious vehemence responded that if he (the investor) felt that money spent on accessibility was money not well-spent then he’s in the wrong stock – basically sell your Apple shares if you don’t share our passion for inclusion.
As a blind person, there isn’t a single Apple product that I can think of that I can’t use to the full. Answers on a post card if you can think of one that perhaps I can’t. The same goes for people with the broadest range of other disabilities. Accessibility is in Apple’s DNA and they don’t just talk the talk, Apple walks the walk in everything they do.
Other manufacturers are similarly passionate about accessibility – I must of course add this here in case I’m accused of singling out Apple alone for such high praise. While many manufacturers are also on this journey, none in my opinion are so far along this road with all their various products and services and none so thorough in taking what is so evidently a ‘Rolls-Royce’ approach to implementing accessibility. Moreover, Apple were without doubt the trail-blazer in this area which encouraged others to join in, put their foot on the gas and shift into top-gear.
UK government – spearheading inclusion but is there ‘wood behind the arrowhead’?
Now let’s look at the venerable institution that is the UK government. With the advent of the general election, the government is also very much in the news this week (some might even say hitting the headlines even more than WWDC, but I’m not sure I’d personally go that far, winky face) and so I’d like to look at their score-card when it comes to making accessibility a reality for the 12.8 million people with disabilities in the UK today – a number which is set to rise to 15 million by 2050.
The UK government was relatively early in enshrining in law the protection from discrimination for disabled people. In October 1999 the Disability Discrimination Act DDA came into effect and stipulated that companies (and government) should “Make reasonable adjustments so that it is not impossible or unreasonably difficult for a person with a disability to use a service”.
Then, in 2003, an accompanying code of practice Rights of Access Goods, Facilities, Services and premises made it completely clear that this includes digital services – giving the example: "An airline company provides a flight reservation and booking service to the public on its website. This is a provision of a service and is subject to the act."
In 2010 the Equality Act added further weight to the legal requirement and should have left no one in any doubt as to their obligations.
So the law has been very clear since at least 2003. And yet, nearly a decade and a half later, we still have Fewer than a third of UK council websites accessible to disabled people and, even more significantly, fewer than a tenth of all websites more generally meet even a base-level of accessibility in our experience.
Why is this the case? One reason might be that, while being in the vanguard of governments across the globe that have put in place the valuable legislation that protects people with disabilities from discrimination in an ever more digitally-focused world, the UK government has never (not once) felt it part of the remit of government to add their weight behind the legislation - to add the wood behind the arrowhead. They've never enforced the legislation or fined organisations that do not comply. The result is the woeful lack of progress outlined above.
A call to action for the CEO of UK Plc
In an open letter to government I published over a year ago for GAAD 2016, I outlined at length why the government should take the simple and obvious step of enforcing the law and encouraging companies to prioritise the accessibility of their websites and apps. The argument is beyond compelling and is quite obvious.
I’d invite you to read the post to get the full picture but, in a nutshell, it calls the government to take enforcement into their own hands much as they already do in a broad range of areas from taxation to parking. Where are the ‘traffic wardens of the internet’ that will champion the cause of the disabled user? Widespread government enforcement would see a seismic shift in the stubbornly immovable status quo. There has been no response to date.
By the time you read this article you might already know who won the election – who the resident of Number 10 and ‘CEO of UK Plc’ is. Whoever that person is, we call upon them to take their lead from the CEO of Apple.
I’m sure that our new PM will care as much about being inclusive as Apple’s Tim Cook so clearly does. They just now need to show it. They should take that most obvious of actions towards enforcing accessibility – a simple step that will forever change the digital landscape beyond recognition.
We call upon the CEO of UK Plc to act swiftly – perhaps even soon after taking that first step into Number 10.