The Digital Accessibility Journey: From Good to Great


10 min read
15 Sep

Professor Jonathan Hassell is the founder of Hassell Inclusion digital accessibility consultancy. He is prolific in the digital accessibility industry, having written the British Standard on Web Accessibility alongside his recent work on the International Standard. Jonathan recruited me as a Project Manager at the BBC when he was the Head of Usability and Accessibility.

I asked Jonathan how he got into digital accessibility and how that evolved into his current work and projects.

‘I’ve been doing this now for almost 20 years. A couple of things happened at the same time. Firstly, I started at the BBC. My job was the Editor of Standards and Guidelines, voted the least sexy job title of all by people around me. The role ensured everything that we did in the digital space was consistently good across the BBC’s 400 different websites and mobile apps.

The BBC has always cared about how people with disabilities are able to get their services. In the past, that’s been things like captions on the TV. With the advent of mobile, and desktop, and web, I was tasked to make sure the BBC became good at that. So best practice from across the organisation, we captured, codified and shared it. It was my job to try and work out what good looked like, how to get people to agree on that, and how to put that down.

The other thing that happened around about the same time was that my nephew Carl was born. He was born with spina bifida. He uses a wheelchair, has a slight learning difficulty, and he’s slightly autistic. I had a personal stake in what I was doing professionally. Over the last 20 years, I’ve been taking the experience that I was able to generate initially at the BBC and compare and contrast that with my colleagues in other parts of the industry. That resulted in the British Standard that we created in 2010.

We introduced the International Standard in 2019. ISO 30071–1 is the standard that incorporated everything we’ve done in the UK and all of the things that I was then doing with my team at Hassell Inclusion to try and help organisations internationally get good at this. We were working out if the things that worked in the UK would work in Scandinavia, would work in Korea, in Japan, in America, Australia, wherever.

We put all of that together, and a lot of what we’re doing at the moment is helping large organisations go on that journey. There’s a lot in that Standard and a lot in our minds that compresses all of the things that lots of very, very good people on accessibility have learned over years and years. Our job now is to go in to try and help organisations accelerate. It shouldn’t take you seven years to get good at accessibility as it did for most of us. You can springboard off from our experience. We can help you get there in a lot shorter time.’

How does the International Standard work?

I asked Jonathan how the British Standard and the International Standard compare to other standards or frameworks, for example, something like the Web Content and Accessibility Guidelines?

Think about who are the standards for?” WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, are for the people on the coalface. They’re for the people coding websites, developers. They’re for people designing websites. They’re for people who are putting the content on the websites. The WCAG are brilliant at doing that. But these days the thinking needs to be broader and include all people in the organisation.

For example, if I’m the project manager I want to know things like, “How long will this take?” If we haven’t been doing much around accessibility it might be, “How much more will this cost? In 2020 it’s not just websites anymore. It’s internal tools. Things like Zoom that we’re using in lockdown. It’s mobile apps. Maybe you’re an organisation that has digital stuff outside your premises like ATMs.

The ISO Standard answers the questions

  • How do you get good at making sure digital teams can deliver accessibility efficiently and repeatedly?
  • How do you get good as an organisation?
  • How do you make sure that it’s not just your website, but it’s all aspects of your site?
  • How do you make sure the tools they’re using to do their job every day have been procured in the right way to make sure that they’re fit for purpose for everybody

It goes beyond getting the technical things right. It helps deliver in a way that fits organisational values, ethics and the business reasons for addressing accessibility.’

Digital Accessibility

Jonathan and I work together a lot. We speak with senior user experience designers, developers, product managers — people that test websites regularly. I asked Jonathan to explain why a diversity and inclusion leader should pay particular attention to digital accessibility.

‘The first thing to say is that I like 2020 better than 2019 and 2018. Diversity and inclusion feels like it’s embracing disability now so it’s part of D&I and that’s a great thing. One of the brilliant things that’s been happening is The Valuable 500. They’ve really spearheaded that mission to try and enable D&I people to understand how important it is to make sure that their organisations are diverse and that diversity includes disability.

Through that D&I managers are encouraged to make commitments. If an organisation wants people with a disability to be able to be employed and to thrive, digital accessibility is part of that implementation. I don’t think that in 2020, somebody who has an access need or somebody who needs to use technology in a different way to other people because of a disability, a condition, an impairment that they have, I don’t think that they’re going to be able to thrive in an organisation unless the software is accessible for them.

The role of the D&I leader is waking up to this. It’s not just good intentions. It’s not about quotas. It’s not about saying, “We want to have more people with disabilities working for us.” It’s about asking, “How are you going to make that happen?” The reality is many D&I people need to work with IT and procurement people to make that happen.

Let me give you a couple of examples. 20% of the population have a disability in most Western countries. That’s going up year on year, and there are a lot of massively talented people who have disabilities organisations would want to recruit. So you need to make sure that your recruitment website doesn’t filter people out by misunderstanding what their needs on an application form might be. If there’s a video on a website that says you really, really care about diversity and inclusion, but it doesn’t have captions, I, as somebody who might have a hearing impairment would say, “Well, you don’t care about diversity and inclusion because you’re not including me in the video that’s talking about it.” So the first thing is making sure the IT people, the people who are delivering your web presence get this stuff.

Second thing is, let’s take the other reason why it’s really useful to be thinking about digital accessibility from a D&I viewpoint. Somebody said that one of the best talent pools you can recruit are from people you already have. Fundamentally, we are all living longer than we ever have, the 65 plus population will nearly double over the next three decades. The pensionable age is increasing. That means people need to work longer. Employers will need to make sure that all of the older population in the workforce can do their jobs well as the things that happen with ageing happen.

Most people who are ageing don’t hear or see as well as they used to. They can still be massively influential in your workplace, but you need to make sure that if they can’t read the text on the screen, that you do something about that so that they can continue being a valued member of your team. So it’s making sure that when people say, they think about disability and when they say they think about people whose needs are different digitally from everyone else, as a D&I manager, you reach out across the organisation and say, “I can’t do this on my own. I need my IT people to go with me on the journey.” That’s what we help organisations to do.’

Different levels

Jonathan talks about three different levels of usability or impairments: permanent, temporary and situational. People who have a permanent impairment, like me. I was born with a rare genetic condition, which means that I’m a wheelchair user. I also use assistive technology because I can’t lift my arms. I use Dragon Naturally Speaking to control my computer. Then some people are temporarily impaired. They go on a skiing holiday, break their arm and can’t use their keyboard for a few weeks while their arm is in plaster. Then some people are situationally impaired. They’re carrying something in one arm, but also need to interface with an electronic device, so using voice control might help in that situation.

I asked Jonathan to explain these ideas a bit more since it’s a really good way of opening up the conversation in organisations. This is particularly true if businesses are a bit fearful of talking about disability, or they think that it’s not a big problem, because the data is telling them that only perhaps 1% of their workforce is declaring a disability. Since we know that about 16% of working-age adults in the UK have a disability, and organisations invariably do employ more disabled people than the numbers are telling them it’s an important framework to understand.

‘What’s key, especially in that last category, the situation impairments, applies to people using digital tools on the move. Say a company makes a product, with an e-commerce website, then at least 50% of purchases happen on mobile rather than desktop. We use mobile digital stuff all the time as consumers, but it’s as important for employees as consumers. If there’s a mobile workforce, with salespeople out and about, they need to do things in a mobile way.

Think about the COVID lockdown working-from-home situation. Most people are not using all of the things that they have on their desk, because they’re not at their desk at the moment and they’re in their home office trying to get by. They may be using an iPad rather than the PC. Another example being I’ve tried to minimise disruptions on this particular podcast, but my family is around me in my house all of the time, and I am not alone in that. That is our common experience of lockdown. Until the kids go back to school, it’s difficult to concentrate on one thing and you’re having to move rooms all of the time. Everything is mobile so it’s massively important. If you like, in some ways COVID has maybe made us all situationally impaired. None of us can get to the offices that may be the place that we normally work.

The way I tend to look at things is that between 16–20% of people in the workforce have a disability. Older people are not necessarily thought of quite so much in terms of the workforce, but I think that’s the direction that we’re going in. That’s another 20% of the population. Then with people who have accidents and people working from home who cannot be paying their full attention to technology, because they’re doing something else at the same time, we’re nearly up to 100%. I’d also say a lot of the people coming through, my other nephew who doesn’t have a disability, he uses Netflix with captions turned on, like most millennials, because he doesn’t do one thing at once ever. So he’ll be watching TV programmes and texting his friends at the same time. Part of his attention is on the TV, but he’s not fundamentally listening to it. So when something crops up that sparks his attention, he’s already missed the text before it, what the person said before that word that just grabbed his attention. But it’s still there on the screen in the captions.

We’re finding that there are more and more things that have been created for people with a disability, as if they were the only people who needed them and that suddenly become everyone’s need. Everything from dropped kerbs working for people who use a wheelchair, but also every mum who’s got a toddler in a pushchair. This is what’s happening, That’s the joy of inclusive design. When you focus on the needs of people who have a different need, you may solve lots of people’s needs that you weren’t thinking about when you did that. So literally everything you do in this space could potentially help the entirety of your workforce and not just people who you think may have a disability.’

The case for accessibility

One of the pillars of digital accessibility is the business case. Another is the legal and ethical case. In the UK, there is the Equality Act which talks about the accessibility of products and services. Ethically speaking, if you have a careers website and you’re saying that you’re inclusive, but your applicant tracking system or your careers website is not accessible, then you’re not being congruent with that statement.

Then there’s the financial case. It costs a lot more to service a customer if they have to ring up a call centre because they can’t access a company’s digital services. A call centre costs the business more money. I also know that Jonathan is particularly interested in the innovation side of things, so I asked him if he could share some interesting examples of how innovation has happened.

‘Historically, the keyboard was created for a blind countess at the turn of the 19th century. She couldn’t write to her lover because she’d just lost her sight, and so the first working typewriter was created for her. Alexander Graham Bell was trying to help deaf people when he invented the telephone, which is kind of ironic really when you think that most deaf people hate the telephone. The impetus for the creation of these things was to look at people for whom the status quo didn’t work. So not being able to write so easily and wanting to use a typewriter; not being able to project your voice a long way, so wanting to be able to have the telephone to do that. What Malcolm Gladwell would term the outliers are the experiences that help you move beyond the status quo, and that’s where we get excited.

We’ve done stuff where we were creating sign language recognition systems for teenagers who are autistic to try and get them from college into work. We wanted to help them understand the new signs for their new job and to help their new colleagues who don’t understand any Makaton sign language understand what signs to use to communicate with them. That, plus some of the other things that we were doing, suddenly became tools that could help people who’d had a stroke, who were being rehabilitated in hospital actually get better in a much more supported way. So it enables support with technology, rather than necessarily always having to be supported by an occupational health advisor, who most of the time wasn’t available.

What we found over time is many things that we’ve done that we thought were for a very small number of people with a particular condition change the way people thought about things. Microsoft came to us and said, “That thing that you were doing with our Kinect technology to help kids with the sign language, we think could help kids who are blind with their mobility studies. Could you help?”

Take our work in the hospital sector. One of our developers who was working on that is now massively in demand in VR and AR technology to where he’s now working with the likes of Universal Pictures on the sort of Jurassic World-type virtual reality experiences that you could get if you are able to get back to the shops at the moment. We have found that a lot of organisations think, “Oh, this is a small number of people, and they need something different from everybody else. And that makes it hard for us.” What we’ve said is, “That’s an opportunity.”

If you want to do something that makes changes, that moves the bar, then you need to look for opportunities where you have to think harder. You have to do something different. And what I found is listening to people like you and lots of other people for whom various types of technology that work fine for me didn’t give you a good experience. So it’s kind of like, “Okay, how do we change that?”

Changes for the better

One example of that is where Jonathan and I were talking with a bank about ATMs or cash machines. For me, in a wheelchair, an ATM is quite inaccessible. I can’t reach the ATM anyway because I can’t lift my arms, but then I’m reliant on a care assistant to help me use the machine, which means giving them my PIN. We’ve been talking about how we could use mobile phones, for example. Could I use my mobile phone screen to withdraw cash? As long as I’m close to an ATM, it dispenses the money.

‘There’s a few security things to get right in there, but I think we defined a potential future direction for banking that would help everybody. No one wants to stand in the queue whilst the person at the front of the queue spends ages trying to get the cashpoint working. If we could all get it working on our phones while we’re in the queue, so all we’re doing when we get to the cashpoint is just putting our phone on it, it recognises what we want, and it gives us the money, suddenly the experience works better for everybody.

A lot of people who had disabilities, who are in the workforce, yourself included, have always worked from home because we know that’s how to get the best from you. Why spend all of your time going between places when digital technology works so brilliantly. Now we are all working from home we could have been doing that a lot more, a lot earlier if a lot more companies had listened harder to people who were asking for it.

The one thing I would say there is that for every person who challenges the status quo and says, “Actually, can I define work like this, please? I would like… To get the best out of me as an employee, I need these certain things, whether it’s a bit of assistive technology because I’m blind, and I need a screen reader.” Or, for that matter, whether it’s, “I need to work different office hours because I have kids or an elderly parent who I need to care for.” All of these things can seem inconvenient. But if you step back and think, “What are the opportunities behind that?” There can be some amazing things happening.

I’m looking forward to seeing how we progress from this imposed new normal that we’ve got. Like people say, “Actually, what was so great about the office anyway? Let’s debug the whole thing. What was great about it? Social interaction with people. Yeah, let’s keep that. What was awful about it? That commute. So how do we get the good bits and throw away the bad bits because we thought differently for a while.” That’s the sort of stuff that has always been available, I think if people have listened to people like you.’

Taking action

I thanked Jonathan for the compliment and asked for one tangible action a D&I practitioner could take to get the ball rolling on digital accessibility and digital inclusion?

‘The first thing is to track the employment experience of your staff. If your website has not been audited for accessibility, that could explain the fact that you don’t have any staff in your organisation who have particular types of disability. If I can’t use it with a screen reader, you are not open for me, if I was blind, for being an employee. So auditing your website.

The next thing is if you’re using e-learning for onboarding. Is that accessible? What if I use my keyboard to navigate around things, can I complete my onboarding with your e-learning especially if I am working from home?

The last thing is testing things like the holiday booking system on your intranet, or the expense system. Can people use these things if they have different types of disabilities? If you can’t actually get a job with an organisation that has somebody with a particular type of disability, then that’s awful, and that organisation is prohibiting you from being able to work there, which doesn’t seem legal to me. But it’s almost even worse if you let people in and then the experience that they get in the organisation disables them. So they have all of the capabilities, but you haven’t provided the technology that works for their preferred ways of doing things. You have disabled them, not the other way around. How can they thrive? You’re one of the best project managers I’ve ever worked with, but if I gave you dreadful tools that you can’t use, I’ve just ruined your effectiveness for me. That’s what the employers should be thinking about.

This is the start of the whole journey of getting good at this, by just checking to see where you’re at at the moment. Nobody wants to be discriminatory, but a lot of it happens. So we can help, if you like, do those audits, to check the temperature, to see whether or not you are being the sort of organisation that you really want to be.’

To find out more about digital accessibility, or doing an audit with Hassell Inclusion visit their website www.hassellinclusion.com

Digital Accessibility Maturity Scorecard

Jonathan has just launched a free scorecard where you answer questions for about 20 minutes. This provides a score for where the organisation is on the journey from awareness in digital accessibility, all the way to being the best practice in the world. It also gives the next steps to take to benefit the whole organisation, no matter where that journey is starting.


This article is based on my podcast interview with Jonathan, which you can listen to: https://www.spreaker.com/episode/40894271