What is accessibility? How do you make digital services accessible? How do you scale accessibility across government? Alistair Duggin (@dugboticus), Head of Accessibility at GDS answered your questions live on Periscope.
Interviewer: Hello, internet. We are broadcasting on Periscope from Aviation House, and our interviewee is Alistair. Please introduce yourself to the internet.
Alistair Duggin: I am Alistair Duggin, the head of accessibility at GDS, and I'm very happy to be here. Hello.
Interviewer: Today's Periscope is a bit different because we are going to enormous lengths to see how accessible we can make Periscope, so if you are watching, we have live text transcription visible on screen. This is an experiment for us and we hope it works as well for you as it seems to have worked for us during testing over the last week. Alistair, we have some questions sent in. Internet viewers, you can send questions to us. So, what is accessibility?
Alistair Duggin: Accessibility is when you make services or products or environments, that you are not excluding people. Everything is inclusive, and where possible, things work for everyone.
Interviewer: But why does it matter? Why should we do it?
Alistair Duggin: Far too often, people think about the mythical average user, expecting everyone to have perfect vision and hearing, perfect abilities and cognition, and that is not true. Humans have a range of abilities and we need to make sure that people aren't excluded due to an impairment of some sort.
Interviewer: When you say "we", you mean government? Why is it important for us to get it right?
Alistair Duggin: We are providing services for all our citizens. Everyone has a right to use the services, and it is not acceptable to exclude people.
Interviewer: Can you give our viewers a summary of your background? How did you end up doing what you do today?
Alistair Duggin: So, I was a web developer at the BBC for a number of years. I did a Masters in interactive multimedia, and when I became a developer, making things accessible and usable was tying in my experiences of interactive media. I had a really bad stutter as a child, and technology helps me a huge amount. Being a developer... If something didn't work, I saw that as a bug, so I wanted to make sure that things worked for as many people as possible.
Interviewer: Since you arrived at GDS, what has been your focus? What have you been working on?
Alistair Duggin: I have spent a huge amount of time travelling around government and talking to people about accessibility and the challenges teams are facing. We don't want to just tell people they need to be doing this stuff. We want to tell people pragmatically how they can achieve this.
We want to understand what the challenges are and try to work out how to make accessibility easier, and the other part of what I am doing is building up a team. This is something I can't do on my own, so we are building quite a substantial team which will help us make accessibility easier and give support around government.
More importantly, we have been trying to grow the community. One team can't make everything accessible, and we need lots of people in government who are motivated and enthusiastic. They are the people who will make a difference, not some people telling them what to do.
Interviewer: For people not familiar with government communities, what is the difference between a team and a community?
Alistair Duggin: It is about reaching out to people who are on the ground doing the work, working in teams. We have tried to invite people into a community, people like content designers, developers, designers, testers, all those people who are trying to deliver these things and trying to bring them together so that they can ask questions.
Some parts of government understand accessibility more than other parts, so the best ways to upskill people is for people to share stories and get support.
Interviewer: Alistair knows all about accessibility. If you have questions, please feel free to send them in.
David Hunt asks, "How do we ensure PDFs are accessible to screen readers, especially those with large images and text?"
Alistair Duggin: This is very challenging for some organisations like government. We have over 3,000 content people publishing content to gov.uk, so you can tell people to do it… We have guidance on the website on the service manual about how to make accessible PDFs, but you need to make sure that people know that they need to make them accessible and how to do that.
So, that is really challenging. That is where… There are a few things. We are trying to engage more with the content community so that we can make people more aware of the sorts of issues you can have if you don't do your PDFs correctly.
With accessibility, it is challenging because people don't put barriers in the way on purpose. They aren't aware. Most people won't know that if they publish a PDF and have not ensured that the content is tagged, someone using a screen reader won't be able to get their content.
If it is and there's an image in the text, that would be available as well. It is all about raising awareness.
If we can do things like… Do something with our publishing tool, if we can prompt them to make it accessible or run a quick check on that PDF and if we find a problem with it to not let them upload it, that'll be much more effective than setting up something that tells them what is accessible.
Interviewer: Is there an element of raising awareness about when is good to use PDFs and when it is best to publish at a different way?
Alistair Duggin: Absolutely. In the service manual, we have that information. It encourages people to use HTML instead of PDFs, which will always be more accessible. People might publish PDFs because it is easier, so again, I think the biggest challenge is to raise awareness.
It is only when people understand the issues that they will make the right decision.
Interviewer: You can send in your questions right now. We will be publishing a transcription of this Periscope today. Usually it takes a few days, but thanks to our fantastic live transcription people, we will get that done faster today.
Another question is from Neil Dickinson who says, "What accessibility tools do you test with when building government websites?"
Alistair Duggin: Some teams don't use tools, and some do. We are in the process of kicking off a project to investigate the different tools out there.
Tools are really helpful because you can find errors really quickly and cheaply, and you can do it early in your process, and you can also bung it across many pages.
You don't always know what they are looking out for, and they can only find a small proportion of issues, so we want to make sure that we are using a tool that will find as many things as possible, and not just point out problems but help people fix them.
We had this project kicked off… Basically, we have built a page with lots of different accessibility issues in it and we're running it against lots of different tools, and off the back of that, we will be able to say which tool is the best tool for us to use, and we will raise awareness of that and encourage teams to be using that as part of the build cycle.
Interviewer: You would rather not recommend specific tools at the moment until we have done that?
Alistair Duggin: There are some good ones out there. There is a tool called WAVE, HTML_Sniffer, and these will do different things. One tool might find things that doesn't help you fix things as well, so you need to work out which tool will be most efficient and most effective.
Interviewer: OK. We have a question from James Malarkey via LinkedIn. "Wouldn't it be great if there was a commitment to remove 'click here' and other generic link names from all government websites?"
Alistair Duggin: Absolutely. In our content guidance on gov.uk, we have lots of information about writing good content, and that includes how to write good links, but again, when you have thousands of people writing content, there will be some people that will do some bad practices.
There is no one thing trying to raise awareness, but also, if you are running an automated tool against a lot of pages, they might be able to pick up some of those issues. So yes, I completely agree, but in government, that is really challenging.
Interviewer: It will take a while, OK.
Hannah says, "Do you have any top tips for embedding and maintaining accessible approaches in large organisations with many content creators?"
Alistair Duggin: Yeah. If you are just telling people they have to make things accessible and not providing any help or support, people are more likely to see it as a difficult thing and will engage in it.
The biggest thing is raising awareness. When people understand the kinds of barriers and issues that people quite commonly and accidentally put in there, when they can see this, I have never met somebody who has said, "We do not need to fix that." It is normally due to not understanding it.
It is about building a community and making sure people have the time and support to do these things. When people are under tight deadlines, things like accessibility can drop down the priority list.
Also, from experience, when you have got some people who are really passionate about accessibility, like spreading the word and encouraging people, that is how you get more and more people involved.
Interviewer: OK. One question we have heard from several people. "For people who want to start doing good accessibility, how do you start?"
Alistair Duggin: Accessibility is a broad topic. It kind of falls into different roles that can do different things. There is content. So, by writing plain English, by making sure your links make sense. Like, don't use "Read more" or "Click here." That will help people by making sure you have alternative text for your images.
Those are the things content people can do. Then you have designers making sure your typography and things are legible, you are using good colour contrast, you have consistency across pages so you are not confusing people.
You then have developers, and it is important that they are writing good semantic HTML that describes the content that they are marking up.
If you are doing those things, that is a big start.
But making sure you do not introduce any problems. If you follow that, you get a huge amount of accessibility for free.
Interviewer: A couple of people are commenting about accessibility and the law. There is a question here on Twitter: "If it is a legal requirement, why are people not taking it seriously?" What does the law say?
Alistair Duggin: The Equality Act 2010 says that service providers must not discriminate against people with disabilities, and they have to do this pre-emptively. It is not good enough to wait for someone to complain.
For something like a website, that means adhering to an accessibility standard, which is the web content accessibility guidelines, and it means including people with disabilities in the testing and giving feedback on your designs.
There is that law in place, but unfortunately lots of people are not aware of it. So, yeah, there is a legal requirement there, but lots of people don't seem to be aware of it or do not follow it.
Interviewer: Here is a question from @visual_stuff on Twitter who says, "What are the ways to make data visualisations accessible?"
Alistair Duggin: That is an interesting one. There are a few things. If you have a static visualisation, you want to make sure that you are including a text alternative to the visual because you can't assume somebody can see the visual.
Equally, if someone is colour blind, they might be able to see the visual but might not be able to distinguish colours. If you have a text alternative that summarises the main information you are communicating, you are providing another way for people to get that content.
Things become trickier when it is dynamic. If you are doing things like using progressive enhancements to create charts from tables, that is going to help. Also, things like if people can change the visualisations, making sure the controls work with the keyboard. Don't assume everyone is using a mouse.
Interviewer: There has been a question sent in by Periscope Co. Are they the actual Periscope people? They are asking whether there will be a recorded version of this and the answer is yes. We are very pleased you are watching. I have thought of a question. Is there a good book for people who do not know where to start?
Alistair Duggin: Yes, it is called "A Web for Everyone". There is even 20% off as it is Global Accessibility Awareness Day today.
Historically, accessibility is taught as a checklist. It is really hard to empathise with a checklist and to get inspired or motivated by a checklist. This book sets accessibility in the context of experience, so you get to understand the kind of issues people face and how you can overcome them.
Interviewer: OK. We are running out of time. Loads more questions we can ask you. Thank you for sending them in, everybody. The next question is, "What does testing accessibility with actual users look like? Is it similar to usability tests, and how do you find good candidates?"
Alistair Duggin: There are few good ways of doing it.
If you are doing usability testing, it is really important and effective to include people with a range of disabilities during that usability testing.
What we say here is you have got limited time and resources for doing usability testing. It is much more effective to test with people who are likely to find problems. They will help you find issues you can fix and they will benefit everybody.
How you go about finding people with disabilities, I guess…
This is one of the things we are trying to make a lot easier in government. We will be blogging about this sort of thing quite a lot in the near future.
Interviewer: Good, OK. Jack Garfinkel sent in a question through LinkedIn. This looks a bit technical but try and keep your answer brief if you can. "For accessible services, will WCAG 2.0 be enough or will you need to implement elements of WAIARIA specification?"
Alistair Duggin: Those things are not exclusive. WAIARIA is an extension to HTML that lets you describe some of your interactive components on a page to make them accessibility screen readers. We already use it for things like tabs and those sorts of things.
We do tend to keep our interfaces as simple to use as possible because we are trying to make it as easy for as many people as possible, so we tend not to use fancy sliders so we use it but sparingly.
Interviewer: OK. Very quickly. Red Mamba says, "Do you have any recommendations for producing accessible video and podcast content?"
Alistair Duggin: Yes. The important things are to have captions and a transcript. This is so people who cannot hear your content can still get it.
For people who cannot see your content, you want to make sure that in your transcript you have audio description, so you are describing anything visually being shown on screen that is not being communicated by somebody who is speaking.
You also want to make sure that the video player you are using is keyboard accessible and that sort of thing.
Interviewer: OK, we have run out of time, pretty much. Quickly, if people want to ask you more questions, what is a good way to do that?
Alistair Duggin: If you sign up to the accessibility blog we launched this week, we will be publishing all sorts of stuff. You can comment on those and we can respond.
Interviewer: Where is that?
Alistair Duggin: accessibility.blog.gov.uk, I think.
Interviewer: We will check that and make sure that it is in the right place so people can find out what it is. Alistair Duggan, thank you very much. Internet, thank you very much for your questions. Thank you for watching.
This was a live transcribed Periscope for GDS. Thank you, transcribers. Goodbye.
Alistair Duggin: Brilliant, cheers.