Accessibility: how far have we come, and where do we go next?
Welcome to Season 3 of the Texthelp Talks podcast. This season, we’re focusing on a topic that is right at the heart of what we do here at Texthelp, and that’s accessibility.
In this opening episode of our accessibility series, our host Rachel Kruzel is joined by Texthelp's Chief Technology Officer, Ryan Graham.
Last time Ryan was on the podcast he took us on a journey through the history of digital inclusion, from the early days of computing to the development of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Ryan returns to look at how far we've come since those guidelines where established, and the impact the present version (WCAG 3) is having on web accessibility. Plus, he'll give a forecast of what lies ahead, with technologies like artificial intelligence presenting exciting opportunities for shaping a more accessible future.
We hope you enjoyed this episode of Texthelp Talks. If you'd like to gain more advice on accessibility, head to our resource area.
Rachel Kruzel (00:15):
Welcome to the Texthelp Talks podcast. This season we're focusing on a topic that's right at the heart of what we do here at Texthelp and that's accessibility. As always, make sure you're subscribed through your preferred podcast player or streaming service so you never miss an episode. My name is Rachel Kruzel and today I'm joined by Texthelp's Chief Technology Officer, Ryan Graham. As our product development lead, Ryan plays a key role in shaping products that help people at all stages of life to understand and be understood. Way back when we started this podcast, we invited Ryan on to talk about digital accessibility and how it's evolved since the emergence of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines back in 1999. In this episode, we want to catch up with Ryan and take a look at how the future of digital accessibility is shaping up. So Ryan, thanks for joining us.
Ryan Graham (01:08):
Thanks very much for having me, and I'm very much looking forward to talking about the future of digital accessibility today.
Rachel Kruzel (01:16):
I really want to talk to you about WCAG 3 and the impact that it's having on digital inclusion. But before we get to that, I think we can start by looking at how far we've come in terms of accessibility more broadly. You may have heard that it's been over 30 years since the ADA, that's the Americans with Disabilities Act, and 13 years since the Equality Act. How do you think accessibility has changed in that time and what have we learned?
Ryan Graham (01:43):
That's a really good question. 13 years is a long time, especially in the technology space. So obviously lots has changed since then. I think probably one of the biggest changes that I've noticed since then, is actually the attitudes towards disability and towards accessibility. I think probably on the whole, we're starting to see a shift in society towards being a lot more inclusive whenever it comes to our technology. Now I'm not saying that we're in a perfect place of course. That would be fantastic, but we're definitely seeing a lot more momentum in thinking about and accommodating people with disabilities, in education and also in the workplace. And I think obviously that's very, very important, not just because attitudes are one of the hardest things for us to change, but also because in the past 13 years I think we can all agree, technology has become more and more complex, particularly for those with disabilities to be able to use the technology and technology today is a vital part of our daily lives.
So I think we've learned that if technology is going to be instrumental in our lives, then we absolutely need to make sure that it's accessible for everyone.
Rachel Kruzel (03:08):
Since you last appeared on the podcast, we've had more progress on WCAG 3. Can you talk about what kind of things are involved in these guidelines and the impact they will have?
Ryan Graham (03:19):
Sure, of course. From this point in, I'm going to call it WCAG just because that's what I'm used to saying. So for anyone who's not aware, WCAG 3 is the next evolution for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. It's designed to be an alternative set of guidelines to the existing WCAG 2.1 and 2.2 guidelines. At the moment it's currently in a working draft status, so that means that it's not complete just yet. It's still being worked on and still being developed. And for the foreseeable future, the WCAG 2 guidelines are still going to be in place and very, very importantly, should be followed throughout this process as well. The new guidelines themselves follow a similar format. If you're compliant with WCAG 2, then there's a good chance that will go a long way to seeing WCAG 3 compliance as well. That the way the guidelines are measured now though is changing, in that there's going to be different ratings for different levels of compliance.
For example, if you're providing alternative text for images, you might get a rating of zero if only 60% of your images have alternative text, but you would get a rating of one for 70%, two for 80% and so on up to a rating of four, and that would be 100% of all your images. I actually find it very interesting that this time around the WCAG 3 is taking into account cognitive accessibility. I've actually talked about this on this podcast a few times before. Cognitive accessibility is actually one of the aspects of accessibility and guidelines that often gets overlooked, especially whenever it comes to meeting standards. And so like I mentioned at the start of the podcast, technology has evolved quite a lot over the past 13 years, but the problem with that is that our websites and the products that we use today have become very, very complex.
Very often you'll find that if you want to get to somewhere on a website, it's maybe two, three, 10 clicks of a button away and you have to remember where you went on that journey from A to B to C. And that can be very, very difficult for people to actually remember facts on your website to be able to achieve the things that they need to be able to do. So the WCAG actually puts in some specific standards to try and guide websites and to guide products to be able to help with that. Some of the specific use cases in WCAG 3, specifically for cognitive accessibility, contain use cases like creating content that can be presented in different ways, for example, changing the layout on your website or on your product to make that a lot more simple, but crucially as well without losing information or structure to that content because it can be very tempting to try and make a piece of layout more simple, but then losing the key bits of information in that as well.
Another thing they've put in there is about providing users enough time to read and use the content. Very often actually what you'll see is on a website, you'll maybe see a popup that only appears on the screen for two or three seconds and by the time you're two or three words into reading that popup, it disappears, which can be very, very frustrating for users, especially if you're not a very fast reader. One of the other use cases I think is really, really important is making text content readable and understandable. I think very often websites are guilty of thinking that lots of text makes it sound more important, engages the user, but actually it can have the complete reverse effect. It can actually drive users away if you've got long blocks of content that people are struggling to read and struggling to understand.
Especially, I've noticed technology websites in general, tend to use a lot of jargon, use a lot of long words. That can be very, very confusing for a lot of users and also take them a lot of time to consume that content because if there's a word that they do not understand, they might have to go research that word. What does that word mean? And by the time you've switched context into learning about that one particular word, you might have lost the thread of the sentence or the thread of the entire piece of text. One of the other use cases that I like in these new guidelines is about helping users avoid and correct mistakes. This is something that we've tried to address with our ReachDeck editor, where, as you're writing, we suggest grammar corrections, spelling corrections... because actually having grammar and spelling problems on your website, not only does it make you look unprofessional as an organisation or as a company, but it can also be very, very difficult for people to read and to try and make sense of your content as well.
In fact, one of the things I find interesting about the new guidelines is actually they've even implemented these practices inside the current WCAG working drafts. So you can actually see these being implemented inside the guidelines. For anybody who's worked with WCAG 2 in the past, you'll know that it can be often very difficult to understand and navigate some of the criteria that you're trying to follow. In the working draft of the WCAG 3 guidelines, there is much more information that is written in plain English without jargon, and also both the guidelines and the rating criteria are very much written to be much easier to understand.
I do feel strongly actually that the WCAG 3 change is such an important shift in how we measure accessibility. As I mentioned before, technology has come such a long way since even the WCAG 2 was published, and I think it's very, very important. The problem that WCAG is trying to solve is really making sure that these guidelines move with the technology to make sure the guidelines cover accessibility at all levels on all different platforms and on all different types of devices. Like I said, at the minute the WCAG 3 guidelines are still in the working draft. So anything that we go through today, absolutely always subject to change, and I imagine that working draft will still be in its change phase for the next couple of years still.
Rachel Kruzel (10:44):
What's Texthelp done to approach these guidelines?
Ryan Graham (10:48):
At Texthelp we've actually been following some of these guidelines ourselves for quite a while. That's why we developed our 10-point plan for improving accessibility across the organisations, and one of the things that's changed as well, is that it's taken into account cognitive accessibility. Those new guidelines include use cases like creating content that could be presented in different ways, providing users enough time to read content and making text content readable and understandable as well. So that's why in our guidelines, we've made the ReachDeck editor available to all of our staff, which allows them to make sure the content that they produce internally at Texthelp and also for our website, is written in an easy to understand way, free from technical jargon and complex sentences, to make sure our content is consumable by everyone. In fact, we actually use the editor to write all the content on our redesign website at texthelp.com to make sure that all the public facing content we produce is in compliance with the new guidelines.
Rachel Kruzel (12:03):
A lot of progress has been made in recent years in terms of listening and responding to the needs of web users with disabilities, but what work would you say still has to be done? What is the next big thing on the horizon?
Ryan Graham (12:17):
In terms of what work still needs to be done, I think, like I said at the start, we're seeing a shift towards being a more inclusive society whenever it comes to technology and accessibility, and that's fantastic, but we still have a massive amount of work to do. We're really just at the start of that journey, especially in the software space, to make sure the technology we produce and the products that we produce are accessible to everyone. In terms of what is the next big thing on the horizon. I think it's probably fair to say the elephant in the room right now is AI, artificial intelligence and machine learning. I really do think that has the potential to have an impact on all of us in some way, both in the near future and also into the medium, long-term as well.
Rachel Kruzel (13:15):
Well, you just mentioned it, and I suppose we really can't talk about the future of accessibility without considering how that technology and other new technologies might affect it. We're seeing the emergence of things like the metaverse, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality. How do we make sure everyone's included and accessibility is baked in from the start, rather than it being an afterthought?
Ryan Graham (13:38):
Really good question. I've talked about the metaverse and AR and VR a few times, and I really find that whole concept of immersive learning very exciting, and I definitely see the opportunities there and the value there. But with that particular technology, I do think there is a lot more work to do to make those kinds of experiences accessible to everyone. With AR and VR, I just don't think we're there just yet. I think it's going to take a little bit of time where we are. I think in particular, the way that those mediums work, it makes it very difficult for them to implement accessibility correctly. Not to say that it can't be done, it absolutely can, but it just takes that little bit more effort, and I don't think we are there with that just yet.
On the other hand, with AI, machine learning and large models that we're seeing such as ChatGPT, Meta's LLaMa and so on. We have access to those models today. I think they're going to have a profound impact on technology, and I think they're going to have a profound impact on everyone in the short and long-term. But I do think it's important that you've asked the question, how do we make sure the accessibility is baked in, because very often, whenever we're on the cusp of new technologies, it is an afterthought, but the best time to begin in accessibility is right at this phase, where we are right now at the beginning of these technologies. That's the best time to make sure that we take advantage of the early phases of it and bake in accessibility at the start. What I would say is that when using AI, in particular, it actually makes the work that the WCAG is doing and the WCAG guidelines are doing even more important. For example, ChatGPT can produce some amazing things, as I'm sure we've all seen, but it can also produce some superbly complex text and complex content.
We really want to make sure that as users of ChatGPT, anybody who's using ChatGPT or similar models, we want to make sure that whenever we're using these models, we use them to produce content that everyone can understand. And so I think that's just something for everybody to be aware of, obviously whenever they're using them. But I do also feel that there is a place for AI to help with accessibility and to make more accessible content and more easily readable content for everybody.
Rachel Kruzel (16:28):
Well, that's all we have time for today. Thanks so much to you, Ryan, for joining us. It's been great hearing your thoughts. And to everyone listening, thanks for tuning in. If you haven't already, please subscribe to the Texthelp Talks on your preferred podcast player or streaming service so you don't miss an episode. Until next time, goodbye.