Time to sow new seeds for digital accessibility

Guest blogger Helen Wilson shares her experience teaching digital accessibility in the workplace and details about the Learn to Enable Digital for Everyone project that’s exploring awareness teaching of digital accessibility to school children.

Helen Wilson is a research student in digital accessibility and a Senior Digital Content Designer at a local authority council.

Reflecting on current practice

In January 2020 I was excited to blog about a simple workplace digital accessibility training model developed as part of my profession role. It was shared for the wider community to adopt, and to help raise awareness of the basic principles of accessibility that could be applied to documents when they were created. 

I’m now moving in a new personal research direction and one I think may hold greater long-term opportunities and rewards for digital accessibility awareness.

I spent much of 2022 reading research, papers, case studies, reports and talking to others who had adopted a similar training model, and they all echoed the same frustrations and barriers I was still facing in my own workplace. 

Teaching adults in a workplace how to apply basic accessibility principles to documents comes with its barriers. Before people even engage in training, you often need to overcome their deep-set preconceptions that even basic digital accessibility is complex, costly and very time consuming. This is often backed up by what they had seen on the internet relating to WCAG (Web content accessibility guidelines) and then reinforced by the fix at the end culture, that we all know can be complex and takes twice as long to do. 

Addressing the making of documents correctly from the offset instead of fixing was often an alien concept, with statements such as ‘we don’t know anyone like that, accessibility isn’t our responsibility, ‘we’ve always done it this way, and nobody has complained before’.

Once the initial hurdle of preconceptions was overcome the training got started, but then this brought with it other problems. To learn how to make documents for accessibility meant ‘unlearning’ established practices to ‘relearn’ a new way to do something, in some cases in the workplace these were digital habits, skills and routines built and adopted over 20 - 30 years.  

Once engaged, with the initial preconceptions and barriers overcome people were often surprised it was ‘simple’ to do, and this is what got me reading and questioning why it was this hard just to teach some very basic principles. I’m an experienced teacher and even when I taught students in further education colleges, I rarely had to work this hard just to introduce a new concept or subject. 

The most important thing I learned however, is that you need to teach it as a whole subject and really emphasise the wider ‘why’ because this isn’t just about digital skills, it’s about underpinning wider disability awareness and everyday barriers people face. 

I believe we need to look at this differently

There are around 20% of people with a disability in this country that need us to think about digital accessibility, but it’s even bigger than this, it’s about everyone.

One of the best models I’ve used for teaching accessibility is the personas for permanent, temporary and situational disability from the Microsoft design toolkit. If you consider and present digital accessibility in this way, it affects everyone, and everyone can relate. 

The first key to teaching is engagement, and this often means tapping into personal experiences to get buy-in or attention. Everyone can relate to sun shining on their screens in the summer, forgetting their headphones when they want to watch a video in a quiet place, or printing in black and white and content losing its meaning because there is no colour. 

I did a great session on this using everyday examples of how it affects everyone, not just those with a disability. The feedback heavily suggested it had a more memorable impact than just teaching the digital skills teaching we so often see and do. The ‘why’ in this context is so important and the real examples helped to promote good discussions around the barriers that a whole range of people can face with digital content.

So, if it affects everyone, why is mainstream awareness in this so low and why is this not taught to everyone, after all we live in a digital society?

Microsoft Design Toolkit of a table with each cell displaying graphics of people showing a permanent, temporary and situational scenario of touch, see, hear and speak examples.

Image from Microsoft Design Toolkit

A new year, a new strategy

The barriers of teaching people in the workplace to ‘unlearn’ skills to ‘relearn’ them doesn’t always feel the most effective, and the pre-conceptions that get in the way often aren’t helpful either. But of course, this needs to continue to be able to address the current workplace skills gap for everyday practice.

But why don’t we also teach these skills at the point of learning digital skills in the first place? Why are we not planning for the future of our digital society and preparing our next generation to be inclusive for the world in which they live? The current situation is teaching them later in the workplace when skills and routines need to be unpicked.

As we know, young people are not just consumers of digital information, they create content just as regularly too. So, it makes sense to make them aware of digital accessibility and how to put some basic principles in place to make their content more accessible for everyone. 
It is during this ideal time in education that young people are beginning to learn and establish their lifelong skills, knowledge and habits. The basic principles of digital accessibility are simple to learn, and if everyone knew from a young age how to put these basics into everyday practice it could just become the 'norm', imagine that?

Unfortunately, my reading identified that currently the topic of digital accessibility or awareness is rarely taught or referred to in schools, colleges or universities, and if it is taught it’s only taught specifically in subjects like ICT, and even this is currently minimal. It’s the same for disability awareness too.

Think about the social model of disability in the everyday world of digital, does our wider society know how to prevent even the most basic digital barriers? Currently I believe the answer in the mainstream is no, and I believe the barrier is lack of visibility of the subject in education and in the mainstream.

So, 2023 brings on my new challenge of going back to university. I’m specifically looking forward to researching what young people in school currently know, and what opportunities there are to bring basic digital accessibility awareness and teaching into the mainstream. 

The everyday skills I am referring to are the following basic digital accessibility principles:

  • captions and transcripts
  • social media hashtags and emojis
  • colour and contrast
  • image alt text
  • describing links
  • use of headings and titles
  • tables
  • use of fonts and clear language
  • reading order
  • using accessibility checkers

I will be using the Learn to Enable Digital for Everyone website as an anchor point to share insights and resources as my research progresses.
The website quotes the famous proverb 'great oaks from little acorns grow' that puts forward the idea that if you persist with small efforts they may build to grander ones in time. 

I believe the acorns in this case are building the foundations of everyone knowing the basics to prevent large-scale barriers, but also sowing the seeds into the minds of our young people who could potentially grow up to become digitally inclusive by default.

If you can share or signpost me to any similar studies, or help me with piloting research ideas, please do get in contact through the Learn to Enable Digital for Everyone website. 

Learn to Enable logo

Further resources: