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This panel explored ways to create and implement user-centric ways of testing websites into the accessibility standards. The discussion involved the regulatory framework, principles of designing accessible tech, the need of participatory method in creating policies related to accessibility, and the necessity of training and awareness building in the tech sector about the needs of people with disabilities.
The panellists confirmed the need to address the issue of accessibility in addition to the existing legal regulation. They listed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, EU Directive on Accessibility, and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a technical standard being the base for strengthening the role of private companies in achieving accessibility and involving the tech community. Despite the available regulatory framework, Mr Clément Le Ludec (French Digital Council) noted that in France less than 4% of public web services are actually accessible to people with disabilities. He also pointed out the lack of awareness in the tech community about responsibilities to design considering accessibility.
Mr Shadi Abou-Zahra (World Wide Web Consortium) explained the four guiding principles of making technology accessible: to be perceivable, operable, having an understandable content to the broadest audience, and being robust, i.e. compatible with many platforms. He also pointed out that technological standards are only a partial solution to the issue of accessibility, stating the need for having an education on how to apply these principles.
All the participants agreed that the participatory method of designing the technological tools is the correct one, allowing for all the stakeholders to provide their input, including the users with specific needs. Ms María Inés Laitano (Researcher at the Information and Communication Sciences Laboratory, Paris 13 University) and Mr Muhammad Shabbir (President of the Accessibility Special Interest Group of ISOC and a Member of the Board of Directors of ISOC Pakistan, Islamabad Chapter) agreed that access does not mean accessibility, and accessibility does not mean usability. Shabbir explained this on an example of using Captcha images for validation of the online form - while able to fill in the form, having to pick out images without an audio or other alternative made the interaction unusable.
The participants pointed out that the tech sector needs to be more aware of the challenges disabled people face. Simple solutions, like changing colours or having an alternative to keyboard shortcuts can make a great difference. Shabbir and Abou-Zahra pointed out that awareness training courses for the tech designers, even in the form of participating in accessibility and usability tests, bring benefits and motivate tech designers to make tech accessible. Shabbir cited an example of having a regional ISOC chapter conference on accessibility resulting in training for governmental tech designers to sensitise them to the issues of accessibility. The initiative now includes an effort to make five Pakistani governmental websites - related to job search and governmental services - accessible to people with disabilities.
The participants concluded by stating that the use of technologies is a great equaliser. The benefits of accessibility, such as the ability to find jobs, improvement of social and economic standing, and greater independence of people with special needs are not sufficiently promoted.
By Pavlina Ittelson