Can 'digital by default' be accessible?

Can 'digital by default' be accessible? 24 October 2013

Introduction

The UK Government is pushing to move services online with the aim of going 'digital by default'. The benefits of 'digital by default' are obvious: reduced costs and convenience for customers. But what are the implications for the disabled and can 'digital by default' be accessible?

What is 'digital by default'?

As part of their digital strategy, the UK Government has been using the phrase 'digital by default'. It's a phrase that sums up what they are trying to do, make all services available digitally and encourage people to go digital first.

It's a strategy that makes sense from a financial standpoint as the Government estimates that moving from offline to digital channels will save them between £1.7 and £1.8 billion a year. It also makes sense for the public as the majority of the population (83%) have Internet access and are accustomed to using digital devices and services (source: National Office Statistics 'Digital Britain 2' report ).

But it's not just the UK Government who is going 'digital by default'. Many services are moving or are only available online and society as a whole is becoming more digital.

However, as detailed in the 'Mind the Digital Gap' report from the disability charity AbilityNet, there are 11.2 million British citizens registered as disabled and a number of barriers than can exclude them from using digital services.

Digital accessibility barriers

The way we interact with digital devices inherently presents barriers for people with certain disabilities. For example, individuals with visual impairments have trouble seeing what's being displayed on a screen and individuals with motor impairments have trouble using a mouse or a touch-screen. To overcome many of these barriers, assistive technologies such as screen readers and dictation systems have been developed.

So there's no problem with going 'digital by default' for the disabled right? Well, not exactly.

Access to assistive technology

Although assistive technology does help many people with disabilities use digital services, it has limitations and can come at a cost. Many disabled people can't afford the assistive technology they need. For example, one of the market-leading screen reader packages can cost upwards of £650 and over £150 for each version update.

Compatibility with assistive technology

As previously mentioned, many assistive technologies have limitations and often cannot make something accessible by itself. An example of this is screen reading software. Online services are often developed without taking screen readers into consideration, making it difficult for someone who is blind to use.

Even the most sophisticated screen reading software can't help users make sense of what they are using when content is unstructured or elements don't have labels.

Poorly designed interfaces

The main barrier to using digital services for people, not just the disabled, is poorly designed interfaces. Interfaces for digital services have sometimes been designed based on business rather than user requirements. Because of this they are often not designed to understand users needs and do not support users in the tasks they wish to undertake. These interfaces can be inconsistent, hard to navigate, and hard to understand making it more difficult to use and inaccessible for people with impairments.

Overcoming digital barriers

Although there are barriers for the disabled using digital services, there are ways to overcome them.

Many disabled people are discouraged from accessing online services because they believe that they will not be able to use them. They maybe not know how to use digital devices or be aware of available assistive technologies. Educating and increasing awareness could encourage more people to use digital services. Although assistive technology can be expensive, there are often cheaper alternatives. However, decreasing or subsidising the cost of assistive technology could reduce the entry barrier to accessing online services.

It's worth noting that there are campaigns by organisations such as the One Voice Coalition and Communities 2.0 that aim to get more disabled access to online services and assistive technologies.

Easier and cheaper access to assistive technology would be meaningless if the services are incompatible and difficult to use. The interfaces for these services have to be designed with users, and more importantly, disabled users in mind. Accessibility of a service should be considered through every stage of the design process in order to be truly effective.

Conclusion

Despite the challenges, digital can be an inclusive service but only with greater awareness, consideration and changes in approach. The UK Government have realised this and as part of their digital strategy, they have developed a design standard that revolves around user interaction. All UK Government departments will have to follow this standard.

But with an ever ageing population and an increase in disabilities, it's important that organisations take a similar approach with their digital services to make sure people aren't excluded by society going 'digital by default'.

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