by Zainab AlMeraj
For most people, getting information online is intuitive and easy, but for blind, deaf, elderly, or dyslexic people this process can be daunting, long and in most cases results in failure. For instance, to complete a food order in an application or check social media on a touch screen smartphone, blind people require a form of assistive technology (AT) called a screen reader (e.g. VoiceOver (iPhone) or TalkBack (Android)), which allows them to listen to what is visually presented on the screen. They navigate through the content using a series of hand gestures, voice and/or device vibrations. However, for the content to be consumable by the screen reader in a way that makes sense to the user, the website needs to be designed and programmed following a set of accessibility guidelines known as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG. This is an example of Web accessibility.
Web accessibility means that people with disabilities (PWD) should be able to perceive, understand, navigate, interact, and contribute to the Web regardless of age or ability. The WCAG standards includes guidelines covering all disabilities: visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological (Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)).
Digital accessibility is a broader term that includes access to all digital things on the Web for all people irrelative of their language or ability including video, audio, devices, mobile apps, electronic documents, and even newer technology such as VR/XR and AI.
To help make the Web accessible and inclusive to all, many countries including the US, Canada, Australia, and the EU as well as private global organisations such as Microsoft, Apple, and JP Morgan Chase have adopted WCAG 2.1 Level AA. However, to date, not all countries have explicit Web accessibility regulations (Web accessibility laws and policies), including some countries who have ratified the United Nations convention on the rights of people with disabilities (CRPD).
In this blog we showcase the State of Kuwait. Despite being digitally active and an economically rich country, Kuwait has yet to ensure digital accessibility for all its residents. Previous investigations have shown poor levels of digital accessibility in education, healthcare and e-government. In this study, our focus is on ICT professionals (Information, Communication and Technology) as the expert driving force behind existing digital technology. A quantitative survey assessed their perspective surrounding tech, disability, skills, and barriers to adopting digital accessibility in software design, development, and procurement (buying ready-made software).
We surveyed ICT professional tech employees and managers in Kuwait and found that the current level of expertise surrounding tech and disability is very limited. Fewer than 30% know how PWDs use technology and an even smaller number (12%) know how to make technology accessible. A similar pattern was noticed for the professionals’ levels of awareness of types of assistive technologies (AT). Less than half of the managers and employees were aware of AT tools used by PWD, with less than 10% having any experience in using them.
Our findings also suggest a low level of awareness, knowledge and competence in key user-focused topics that contribute to the overall customer experience such as human centered design, universal design, usability, user interface (UI) and user experience (UX). The data shows that over 75% of tech managers and employees are not familiar with any international standards relating to these topics. This suggests that the knowledge gap pertaining to customers’ usage across the technical professionals is large, which in turn could be causing inferior product user experiences.
In terms of perceived barriers to adopting accessibility practices, we found that awareness, skills, training, and time constraints ranked highest. These findings are typical given the nature of the fast-paced world of software design and development. Most of the participants disclosed that they had not received any training in the targeted areas by their employers. However, some had initiated their own training for self-interest and professional development. Interestingly, those aware of accessibility and usability did rated higher on empathy and ethical values.
Overall, the low rates of accessibility knowledge and experience identified in this inquiry can be attributed to two main factors: lack of exposure to the disabled community and weak coverage of user-focused topics in higher education curricula and professional training and certifications paths. This highlights the need for better testing and training in the future to ensure that software usability and accessibility basics are taught to all in the ICT space.
The MENA region has yet to experience accessibility policy reform that has occurred in the west. Only recently, post COVID-19 pandemic, have topics such as diversity, equity, inclusion (DE&I) and accessibility begun to receive media attention. Findings like ours help draw stakeholder attention to core DE&I elements currently overlooked in Kuwaiti software practices. These findings also influence executive c-suite management whose interest and involvement are essential to ensure support and development in the organisations’ journey to inclusion.
Pending government and private sectors adoption and the establishment of laws and policies at national and organisational levels, stakeholders ought to begin to establish a strategic accessibility plan and opt for a maturity evaluation model to help in upskilling, effective onboard of newcomers, regulating third party collaborations and offering a measurable foundation from which to sustain efforts. Interestingly, many organisations worldwide bound by accessibility laws still struggle with creating and sustaining accessible software and routinely consult international agencies for guidance.
Cutting edge prototyping and development platforms are slowly paving the way for usable and accessible software creation. In the meantime, stakeholders are encouraged to adopt a universal design mindset in their works, and address a broader spectrum of users, particularly PWD, in their user-testing early in the SDLC to resolve barriers as soon as they emerge. This can help boost customer satisfaction and loyalty, key factors in any company’s success.
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