Before relocating back to New Zealand to work as a Territory Manager, I worked as a QA Engineer in the Dev team at Delib. Essentially, it was mine and Stan’s job to test Citizen Space, Dialogue and Budget Simulator to make sure they were not only awesome, bug-free and user-friendly but also that they adhered to stringent accessibility guidelines.

The role itself was quite technical, involving a lot of technology – from automated tests, cross-browser and differential tools to running manual regressions – to ensure users get the best consultation experience. It’s probably this focus which initially shaped my view of accessibility as a purely technical requirement. However, I’ve since come to realise the narrowness of that understanding. So in this blog post I’m going to firstly concede my own ignorance, and then advocate we take accessibility and the notions it implies even further.

What is accessibility then? In the plainest possible definition, accessibility means ensuring everyone, including those with disabilities, can use the web. More authoritatively, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) defines accessibility as:

“…accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web.”

It’s a tall order, and one that requires a form of standardisation so that tools, websites and technology can be benchmarked for usability. For that we have  web standards, many of which you will have hopefully seen, called W3C Standards. These standards cover a large array of things, from font sizes and colour contrast right through to the fundamentals of the internet such as HTML markup and emerging technologies like Semantic Web. These standards are important as they dictate how different browsers may interact with a website and how a screen reader might render the content on a page.

While W3C standards are massively influential, it’s also true that they’re not formally enforced – and there are plenty of websites, apps and software tools which don’t adhere to them. Perhaps, in those cases, site designers have made a conscious decision that it’s too difficult to achieve what they want creatively within accessible standards. It might even be that a cost-benefit decision has been taken and the site owners aren’t expecting anyone outside of a certain demographic to interact with their website, so why should they bother with this extra burden of accessibility?

At Delib, we deal in digital democracy. For democracy to truly work, online and off, it has to be for, and open to, everyone. Participation needs to be within easy access for people regardless of gender, race, income, disability, background, age* or anything else.

*Yes, yes, three-year olds don’t get to vote. You know what we mean.

Needless to say, if you are using one of our digital tools in Citizen Space, Dialogue or Budget Simulator, you are already offering consultation in a best practice solution that meets those W3C accessibility standards and has been tested with assistive technology. Your site will be ‘accessible’ in that technical sense. As I mentioned earlier, however: as advocates of digital democracy and creators of consultations, accessibility doesn’t end there. There’s more to it than that.

One of things that struck me when I reread the W3C definition of accessibility was the inclusion of the words ‘interact’ and ‘contribute’. Being able to interact goes beyond just having the ability to see or hear words on the page. Furthermore, being able to contribute in the democratic process online goes beyond simply ticking boxes in a web form.

So what can we take away from this and apply to consultation?

  • Accessibility is a human issue and not just a technical requirement. It is more than just ensuring your websites work with screen readers and assistive technologies.
  • Being able to contribute and interact in the democratic process means being able to contribute your voice how you feel comfortable: be it online, offline, on desktop or on mobile, at 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning.
  • It also means being able to contribute at your own pace and in space which is comfortable (as we’ve covered in a previous blog).
  • Barriers to contribution aren’t always going to be technological. Are you giving your participants the right contextual information so they feel like they can accurately and adequately contribute their voice?
  • Barriers aren’t always going to be ability-defined. I have a colleague, James, who often states, ‘if you’re bored making the consultation, think how bored are the people filling it out going to be.’
    • Are your consultations engaging?
    • Are you asking too many questions and seeing participation drop off in your consultations?

The task of ensuring government consultation and involvement activity is ‘accessible’ isn’t just a technical tick-box: it’s a responsibility to make it ever more easy for anyone and everyone to participate in decisions that affect them.