How can the global civic tech community fix common accessibility challenges?
mySociety convened an Action Lab (aka working group) of 6 individuals, who worked together to answer the above question and then commission a paid piece of work based on their conclusions.
This Action Lab (aka working group) was convened as part of mySociety’s TICTeC Labs programme.
On 3rd February 2022, mySociety hosted a Civic Tech Surgery that brought together a group of around 100 civic tech practitioners and researchers from across the world to discuss common challenges in ensuring that civic tech is accessible, and the possible solutions. You can find resources from this Civic Tech Surgery here, including minutes, a summary of inputs, a Padlet of contributions, and the full recording.
The Action Lab’s mandate
The purpose of this Action Lab was to use the information gathered at the above Surgery to discuss and decide on a piece of work that would be most useful to produce in order to help the global civic tech community address common accessibility challenges. The aim was to provide a practical solution that will help organisations running civic tech projects to make their projects more accessible for everyone.
The Action Lab will drew up terms of reference for this piece of work, and a grant of up to $3760 USD was offered via a call for proposals.
Common challenges identified at the Civic Tech Surgery were:
A lack of user-centred design practices Civic tech is often built before there is a full understanding of users’ needs. Users aren’t involved in the planning or during the build, still less do we engage with people who might have extra accessibility needs.
Inhouse culture There’s often no structure within civic tech organisations that ensures that accessibility is built in from the beginning of every project – it’s often seen as something to bolt on at the end. And there’s nothing to ensure that the small changes to our working methods that have a large impact on those trying to access our services are adhered to over the years, through staff turnover or organisational growth.
A lack of expertise Civic tech teams are often small and may not have accessibility knowledge inhouse. It can be tricky, for example, for non-experts to approach a visual interface like maps and make them equally accessible for those with visual impairments.
A lack of funding Funding sources don’t always recognise the necessity for incorporating time and resource to ensure that a project is accessible. Funders prefer to fund new projects than to give additional funding to an existing one which might allow more work that would make it accessible.
Differing needs Audiences may have access to (or no access to) a diversity of platforms, or speak a variety of languages. We generally assume a level of literacy that a large percentage of the population doesn’t have. And those who need our services most might not even be online.
Misunderstanding our users Engagement by those who are struggling to use the service can be misinterpreted as misuse or abuse. If users with accessibility needs aren’t already accessing our tools — because they can’t — it can be hard to identify them and therefore understand which needs we need to meet.
The below possible solutions to the above challenges were identified at the Surgery – these, and others, were discussed by the Action Lab to decide which should be taken forward:
Don’t assume, ask Ensure that solutions come directly from the experiences of people who will use your tech. Involve these people in every step of the build. How can we help normalise this?
Online materials Guidance like the Universal Access Guide by Code For All provides a free and open source guide for developers to learn from. Make your accessibility guidance friendly and approachable, like accessguide.io. Could we find ways to ensure these resources are more widely known about and adopted?
Get buy-in — and start at the top Get the decision-makers on board with the move to total accessibility. Often this is best achieved by showing them the real-world results of making projects accessible, so this could take the form of meetings with users or really compelling case studies.
A companywide change in culture Embrace the idea of designing and building for everyone as one of your organisation’s guiding principles. Make a guiding document for the entire organisation that informs how everyone thinks about and approaches accessibility. One way to encourage this might be to provide a template.
Utilise pictures Like IKEA instruction manuals, don’t use text where you can use visuals. Employ illustrators to make attractive and easy to understand interfaces. Could one solution be to collaborate with an existing database of illustrators?
Begin with your own colleagues Run an anonymous survey to find out how many staff are disabled and have issues with online tools: this is a powerful way of showing where you already have gaps internally, which can really bring home what a lack of accessibility means. Might we spin this out to a sector-wide survey? Or create a survey template to share with the community?
Share figures Try to educate your peers on disability stats so they can grasp the scale of the problem. Could we compile these stats?
Coding that instills change So much of accessibility is optional. That shouldn’t be the case. Build it in. For example, if you’re coding up a website, make it so that people can’t add an image without filling the ALT field in.
Seek to educate funders about accessibility and when applying for new funding, ensure that accessibility is part of the scope. Encourage funders to insist on accessibility being a consideration in every application. Could we identify which funders already consider this a priority and share that with the community?
Consider translation and audio Even automated translation can help widen the accessibility of your materials. Could we explore audio based access to information?
Building connections If we can’t do it all, can we provide a means of connecting civic tech companies with organisations that can help?
An accessibility developer corps: a list of software developers with experience in making sites and tools accessible, available for hire and volunteering.
See what’s already been done Identify best practice in other civic tech projects which are accessible and broadly used, whether that’s inherent or accidental.
Start by making events (online and IRL) accessible Include captioning, sign language, transcripts provided afterwards. Make sure videos (both prerecorded and live) have subtitles.
TICTeC Action Lab #2 members agreed to commission a piece of work that creates a resource/ toolkit to support the global civic tech community in fixing common accessibility challenges. The Action Lab #2 subgrant was awarded to Technoloxia (Tunisia) who created a practical guide for civic tech practitioners on how to start incorporating accessibility into their work, available as a PDF and as an audio guide. Working with team members with disabilities, trained practitioners and a focus group of users with different accessibility needs, they have produced an overview of what accessibility means, how to approach it, a selection of good practice for specific elements and a further list of resources.