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Levelling the playing field with inclusive design

  • Everyone should have the right to access and interact with the world equally, yet for 15% of the population, their experience with IT comes up short.

  • Not ensuring accessibility to products, services and technology will lead to risky workarounds, the potential for cyber attacks, bad experiences and lost revenue opportunity.

  • By incorporating the elements of inclusive design, businesses can provide better experiences, enjoy safer systems and receive the dividends of a complete user base.

The world is celebrating the success of its paralympians, watching humanity and sportsmanship unfold at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. 

Those following may have noticed references during the Games to ‘WeThe15,’ a humanitarian campaign that seeks to support the 1.2 billion people living with a disability worldwide.1 It speaks to a broader global movement, seeking greater inclusivity and celebrating diversity. Sports, with its heroes and commitment to fair play, is almost the perfect analogy of its goals. 

It isn’t the only example. Over the past two years, as the coronavirus pandemic has led to daily political press conferences and an abundance of virtual meetings, the importance of accessibility has been highlighted many times over. Auslan sign language interpreters are now standard at all government announcements, and video conference calls, with their restricted viewing fields,2 are leading to changes in sign language itself as it is adapted to fit within computer screens.3

These examples highlight that it is far past time to provide a level playing field in one other area: information technology accessibility. Fixing IT deficiencies when it comes to access is not only the right thing to do, it provides benefits for everyone, securing businesses against cyber attack, creating better customer and employee experiences, and increasing dividends.

The impact of disability

WeThe15 points to a statistic we should all be, but likely aren’t, familiar with. Fifteen percent of the estimated global population live with a disability.4 Many of these over one billion people are not adequately supported by the IT needed as part of daily life. 

And more broadly, when including diversity in technology access, there are even more people challenged, alienated or not supported through poorly designed IT. In Australia alone, over 4.4 million people have some form of disability, and as the likelihood of living with disability increases with age, these figures will likely increase.5 6  

Poor IT design has an impact on everyone, not just those living with a disability. While 15 percent of the globe may not be able to access the IT supporting a system or service, effectively shutting many of them out from contributing to society, providers or companies that are not using an inclusive design approach are also potentially missing out on 15 percent of a global market. 

That’s not a small amount of business to just leave on the table. Moreover, it could be leading to a more disruptive problem down the road: making yourself more vulnerable to cyber threats.

Digital trust and cyber security… a disability issue?

What many businesses don’t realise is that not designing systems for all their employees or customers can create unexpected risks. When users cannot access a system independently, work-arounds will be found (hello, shadow IT) or required. These internal ‘hacks’  present a very real cyber security issue. 

Identity verification (logging in or accessing platforms or devices) is a key problem area that is critical to a strong security model. Forms that don’t provide translation to other languages, are not legible to screen readers, or require users to commit fraud to complete (such as accommodating gender transitions or anglicised but unofficial names) lead to users finding other ways to accomplish access. 

COVID-19 has provided the perfect example of accessibility challenges: QR codes, commonly used to ‘check in’ to businesses and public places for contact-tracing purposes. Users who cannot easily access or use these forms are limited to either not entering (lost customer), entering without checking in (COVID-19 risk) or providing their personal details in writing which poses an additional and unnecessary privacy risk to their personal information sitting out in public. 

The good news is that organisations can mitigate cyber security risks without excluding a large part of their potential customer base through an inclusive design approach. 

What is inclusive design?

Inclusive design is a process of remediating accessibility gaps which could be exclusive or alienating to users. By including community consultation from a diverse range of users and taking an approach of ‘one-size-fits-one’, digital trust can be built, everyone’s considerations heard (on their own terms) and systems co-designed for trust.7

Embedding security and inclusive design principles up front and using internationally recognised standards for accessibility is a good start. Some solutions may need to go further to consider accessibility requirements such as language support, readability, unconscious bias, ethical considerations or new approaches altogether. 

The process of designing inclusively should include mapping — at the design and solution stages — to identify user experience gaps in using the process, service or solution. It should also consider a diverse range of users to understand any barriers to uptake that may discourage or impede them from accessing the service or system.

Systems and services should be designed to include all users and avoid processes that pose challenges for users that do not engage in ‘typical’ ways. This means content should be usable for those with vision-related disabilities, but it must also extend to ensuring that systems and services support the whole community — for example identity verification options that are non-binary for gender, ethnicity and other typical identity metrics.

This is not a point-in-time exercise. It requires iteration and maintenance as the system, environment and community adapts and changes. 

Accessing accessibility

The good news is there are a lot of frameworks and guidance available supporting inclusive design. Some key steps are:

  • Build understanding. There is a lot of literature out there on the benefits of designing for everyone. Make sure you have a basic understanding of the what and why of inclusive design before you set out. 

  • Assess your current state. Audit the extent of your current accessibility according to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.8

  • Identify areas to improve. A good place for inspiration is the Centre for Inclusive Design, an organisation supporting the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.9

  • Plan for the future. When thinking about future products or services, build in the use of resources such as the AI Ethics Framework (which is being prepared through the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources and will provide guidelines and recommendations for the use of responsible AI).10

The bigger picture

Taking a moment to return to why the Paralympics are so inspiring, there is undoubtedly something very satisfying about the fairness of the game being open to the 15 percent unable to compete in the Olympic Games. Paralympians, like everyone with disabilities or accessibility challenges, have the right to participate, compete and inhabit the world at the same level and with the same ease as everyone else.11

With inclusive design, we can bring this shining example of accessibility to IT, allowing everyone to use products, services and technology equally and without obstacles. Not only will this be safer — for businesses and people using their products or services — but it will also be profitable, provide overall better experiences, be more diverse and ultimately, is the right thing to do.

As PwC Australia's Chief Economist, Jeremy Thorpe, sees it: “Inclusive design is a no-regrets process that creates significant benefits which are currently being left on the table. It is an overlooked step in maximising the potential of Australian business and ensuring a more productive Australia.”

It’s time to let everyone in.