Digital inclusion: A journey through time


Later this month will mark the tenth anniversary of Global Accessibility Awareness Day. To mark the occasion, we're hosting our first ever Festival of Accessibility. In the run up, we're celebrating the achievements that have been made in the digital inclusion space so far. And reveling over what's about to come.

In this podcast episode, hear from Ryan Graham, Texthelp's Chief Technology Officer. He'll take you on a journey through time. Delving into the past, present and future of the digital space.

We hope you enjoyed this episode of our Texthelp Talks podcast!

Transcript

Stuart Blair:

Welcome to the Texthelp Talks podcast. We've got a host of experts covering a range of topics from education right through into the workplace. So make sure you subscribe through your preferred podcast player or streaming service, so you never miss an episode. Today, you'll be hearing from me, Stuart Blair Workplace Product Manager at Texthelp. I'm delighted to be joined by Texthelp's Chief Technology Officer, Ryan Graham. As CTO, Ryan heads up our product development, leading and directing our engineers to deliver products that help people around the globe to understand and be understood. Accessibility is at the heart of everything we do at Texthelp. In the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we wanted to catch up with Ryan and take a look at how digital accessibility has evolved over the past decade. So today, we'll be taking a look at the achievements that have been made in the digital inclusion space so far. As well as delving into past and present, we're going to take a look at what's to come. First off, Ryan, it's great to have you today.

Ryan Graham:

Thanks, Stuart. Great to be here, talking about my favorite subject, accessibility.

Stuart Blair:

Great we've got it through then. Let's kick things off by starting to look at the past. From the rise of the first computer in the 1940s, somewhere along the way came the idea of digital exclusion. Now, we want to look at that term. Its meaning has evolved significantly over the years. Simplistically, someone was digitally excluded if they didn't have a computer or access to the internet, but today the idea of digital exclusion involves various different elements. Can you walk us through this?

Ryan Graham:

Yeah, sure. Over the years, many terms for this have emerged. Terms like digital equity, digital participation and literacy as well. But really in short they're just terms used to define the barriers that exist in everyday life whenever it comes to technology. This includes just not lack of access, but also lack of digital skills needed for today's technology. Also, it accounts for physical and cognitive barriers, things that can affect whether someone can actually use the digital content that they've accessed. And then the success which users can use those technology to fully participate in society.

Stuart Blair:

I think that's a really good point you make at the end there, about it's actually how users can use digital technology to participate in society. Realize move this over the years has led to the rise of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in 1999. These were published by the Worldwide Web Consortium, W3C. There's actually some really defining moments in and around this. Can you walk us through them?

Ryan Graham:

Yeah, absolutely. We know that in 1994, the W3C was founded by sir, Tim Berners-Lee to oversee the continued development of the web. In 1995, they released a HTML 2.0 specification, which was actually the first specification to have the image type. Before that websites were pretty much all text. That image type came along with an alt attribute specifically for users who are unable to see those images, to be able to have an auditory text description. And around that time, there was a man named Gregg Vanderheiden. He was the founder of the Trace Center. He realized that some of those features in that specification were actually likely to cause accessibility problems. For example, most browsers at that time didn't actually support that alt attribute.

Ryan Graham:

So roughly by that same year, he wrote what was considered to be the first accessibility guidelines for the web, in a document called Design of HTML Pages to Increase Their Accessibility to Users with Disabilities: Strategies for Today and Tomorrow. A title which obviously rolls off the tongue, but a very, very important document. Over the years then the Trace Center themselves compiled 38 accessibility guidelines around the web and formed the unified website accessibility guidelines in 1998. But at that point they also built the guidelines as required or recommended depending on whether they're essential to access the information on that page. And then those guidelines went on to become the foundation of the very first version of what we know today as the web content accessibility guidelines in 1999.

Stuart Blair:

So I see it's really interesting when you look back that they started with 38 accessibility guidelines. Knowing how involved you are in this space now I'm sure you'd agree if we only have 38 things to worry about now we'd be doing very well.

Ryan Graham:

Absolutely.

Stuart Blair:

So over the past 22 years at wcag or wcag as some people pronounce it has made huge impact in the digital inclusion space. And they've evolved with new technology from version one to version two. Now we are on 2.1 and we're in the workings of the draft of 2.2. Can you tell us what the differences have been between all of these?

Ryan Graham:

Yeah, absolutely. So really it's been a gradual evolution and between those versions all stemming really from technical discussions, pretty much similar to Greg's first set of guidelines. But there are nine more focusing on the entire process of designing and building accessible content from the ground up. For example, wcag 2.0 recommends avoiding jargon terms, jargon words. Recommending that navigation behaves consistently and more pointed across browsers and the user input and forums as validated. I think they've also changed the way that they look at devices and access to devices from obviously the basic websites of the 90s through the boom of 2000s even into the mobile application space. One of the other big changes I think that we've seen is actually how we develop those guidelines. So ironically we now use the internet to discuss those changes between versions and get feedback from millions of people across the globe and interpreting the guidelines.

Stuart Blair:

I think it's a really interesting point too, that you make there about how guidelines are being shipped now by the internet but also by the advances in technology and the apps and mobile. It would have been much simpler back in the day they simply have a website and simply online desktop computer. Now even with laptops, tablets, it's all much more complex.

Ryan Graham:

Exactly.

Stuart Blair:

Okay. That was a great summary. Thanks for that, Ryan, if we move from the past then into the present. So as our CTO, do you think there's a big enough emphasis on digital inclusion and web development?

Ryan Graham:

You know, I think there's a big enough emphasis. I certainly think attitudes are changing for the better. There's no doubt about that. Both in terms of, and sort of corporations awareness and individual development awareness within the community as well. I think there's probably a lot more accountability now too, which is obviously being helped along by a new legislation. So in comparison if we look back, it definitely wasn't a mainstream topic like I think it is today. And that's why I do and propose this idea of a global awareness accessibility day to sort of get everybody on board and raise awareness of that. And it's brilliant to see that come out that's 10th year now.

Stuart Blair:

You mentioned legislation there. Obviously we've been in this sector for a long time and we knew about legislation that's come into play, particularly in the UK. Do you think there's enough enforcement of the legislation?

Ryan Graham:

That's a really good question. And at the present, I don't think that there is, I think there's an awful lot more that can be done. And I think as well, using these guidelines as well and not less legislation is something that they need to keep on top of in the same way as we kept on top of the wcag guidelines themselves.

Stuart Blair:

Yeah. Completely. There's still a lot of growth to be done in terms of how we think about digital inclusion as well. For example, back in 1999, Vint Cerf, One of the founders of the internet made a speech. And in this speech, he raised several risks to digital exclusion, including costs, demand and government restriction. But what he did say, and I think is very important was the internet is for everyone, but it won't be if it's too complex to be used easily by everyone. And I think that's really interesting because complexity involves more than just digital skill and it's taken the accessibility space a while to grasp that. Digital inclusion is also about whether our digital content is easily understood by everyone too. What's your thoughts on this?

Ryan Graham:

Yeah. So I think today digital inclusion is really about addressing the buyers that we were talking about before. And I guess it's right there's multiple elements involved there. So an affordable and robust broadband internet service is key. We need to have access to the internet and again, that goes back to Vince Cerf's speech. He specifically says that in that speech. And I think that's a really good point.

Ryan Graham:

And internet enabled devices that meet the needs of the user and whether it be phones, tablets, laptops, and so on. Access to digital literacy training, I think is really important. And quality tactical support is a really important part as well. And there's nothing more frustrating than facing a barrier and having nobody there to help you and having nobody there to communicate with, to be able to get beyond that barrier. And then finally applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency and participation and collaboration with other users as well. I think an awful lot of those are often forgotten about, but together they really do form a digital inclusion as whole.

Stuart Blair:

No, I completely agree. And you've mentioned five or six there really key points. Do you have a running order of which one do you think is most important to be addressed there or do you think they all have equal importance?

Ryan Graham:

Really good question. I would say some of them have equal importance. I think the affordable broadband service is key. Without access to the internet, you have no access to that information. And having that access to that information should be a fundamental right for everybody. And to be able to consume it and then following on from not being able to understand it.

Stuart Blair:

Yeah, absolutely agree. That's true. And through our own work in the industry as a company, our own evolution of thinking around digital inclusion has evolved to. We've recently merged our website accessibility toolbar and to a full digital inclusion solution called big stack. And it'll help organizations to tackle technical accessibility compliance as well as readability on the various factors that impact inclusive design. So as CTO, where do you see us going from here?

Ryan Graham:

So to your point accessibility barriers can be anything. It can be physical, cognitive. There are 1 billion people who are disabled. And 10% of people are dyslexic. And I think really to achieve true digital inclusion, we need to do our best to meet the needs of all of those groups. Not just one of those groups, all of them. And that really means understanding their needs and their expectations on how we can provide solutions to help them become self-sufficient and help them participate on collaborate. And certainly I think recently as well and particularly at textile we've changed how we think about how we develop those products.

Ryan Graham:

And we absolutely use this mindset ourselves whenever we're developing new products from the ground up. And also whenever we're writing content for our website and whenever we're communicating with our customers, either by a social media or other channels. And I think we really expect and we want industries and other organizations to take that exact same approach. Whether they're a software company or any other aspect of industry. And I think we can really give the benefits to the users if we all work in that same way.

Stuart Blair:

Yeah. Some very good points there Ryan. One thing I'll pick up on that you mentioned just at the end there, is you say we fully expect all industries to take the same approach as us. What can we do better at Texthelp to inform those industries to take that approach?

Ryan Graham:

Well, I think raising awareness as a first part. Some industries are not aware that there is a problem there that needs to be solved. So making sure that they understand those problems, making sure that they understand these barriers is absolutely the first step in that process. And then giving them the tools to be able with the resolve that. Giving them the tools to be able to identify technical errors on their website, their applications, giving them tools to be able to improve the readability of the content and the written communications with not just their customers, but also their own staff and their employees as well.

Stuart Blair:

Yeah. No, I agree. That brings us nicely onto the future then. As we can see, and I think everyone knows the accessibility space has come on leaps and bounds over the years and will continue to do so even now at first working drafts of wcag 3.0 is underway. In your view, how will this differ from wcag 2 and how do you think this new version will further improve on digital inclusion?

Ryan Graham:

Good question. So unlike wcag 2.0 through to 2.2., 3.0 will be a very different approach. It's basically a different way of thinking, different set of goals and a different set of measurements. And very importantly, it takes into account that even today's websites are no longer simple web pages like they were in the 90s and the 2000s. These are full-blown complex applications that people interact with on a daily basis. And it recognizes that the goals of 2.2 and previous they needed to change.

Ryan Graham:

And criteria how the change in order to help more users navigate these more complex websites of the future. And in particular, for me, I think I'm very excited to see that version three world and introduce parts of it offering to accessibility guidelines. And to help both tour authors and content creators, to be able to produce simple and understandable content for the web. Like I said before with the readability thing, I think that is absolutely key. I really got that's encoded in version three. This is a big project. It's very ambitious and it absolutely needs to be done. So it will take some time years even. And to go and finalize this, but I really have no doubt that this will have a profound impact on digital inclusion.

Stuart Blair:

Yeah, absolutely. One final thing for me then Ryan, you mentioned right at the very start of our podcasts, that accessibility was your favorite topic. A lot of our listeners and their organizations will be at the very start of their accessibility journeys. What's one piece of advice you would give to an organization that was starting to look more seriously at accessibility.

Ryan Graham:

That's a really good question. I think the one piece of advice I would give is to think about your users whenever you're developing content. Think about how they understand that content and how they read that content rather than how you write it. It's very easy to write content for yourself and content that you understand. It takes a lot of effort and it takes a lot of self-introspection to be able to think about your users in that way, to be able to help them. And if you help them, they are going to help you, help your business and help each other. That's what we want to try and achieve.

Stuart Blair:

Yeah. Brilliant. Well, look, I think that's all we have time for today. So thank you so much for joining us. It's been great and really informative. And to our listeners thanks for listening. If you'd like to find out more about what the future of accessibility looks like, check out the agenda for our very first festival of accessibility coming up on the 20th of May. Our virtual conference will see 11 organizations teaming up to deliver nine sessions all around digital inclusion and Ryan will be joined by a building net and the readability group to talk more about the future of accessibility. You can find out more at text.help\texthelpfest21. And don't forget to subscribe to Texthelp Talks on your preferred podcast player or streaming service to catch next episode. Thank you very much. Bye.