As Inclusive Design Principal at Kainos, my job is to make digital services inclusive and accessible. Digital equality is something I strive for every day.
The work I do with our partners across the healthcare, commercial and public sectors is 100% focussed on making sure important services can be used by everyone, regardless of their abilities and personal context.
So, just like everyone else, you might say I have a biased way of seeing things or a ‘filter’.
What I’m seeing in the news is this: coronavirus is not indiscriminate. Inequality is making it harder for some people to get through this crisis, and inaccessible websites will make it even worse.
The story right now is that coronavirus is making existing inequalities worse. The story that’s coming will be about how inaccessible digital services are making those inequalities worse still, by denying people access to the basic goods and services they need to get through this.
Until now, people excluded from accessing goods and services online might have been able to access them in person or on the phone. Now, coronavirus means shops are closed, face to face services are scarce and helplines are jammed.
I called several global high street banks during the writing of this blog. The recorded messages didn’t say please wait, we’re busy but we’ll answer your call as soon as we can. It said we can’t answer your call at all, we simply don’t have the staff.
How will anyone get anything done if they can’t do it online?
People are dependent on digital services to meet their everyday needs – whether it’s healthcare, government support, food, banking or utilities – so when someone with access needs tries to use a digital service that isn’t accessible, it’s going to make a bad situation a lot worse.
Let’s be absolutely clear about the implications of this: digital discrimination poses a real risk to people’s lives and livelihoods.
The need for support at this time is enormous but people living with inequalities are much more likely to need it. That’s how inequality works, it takes a point of discrimination and multiplies it with an increased likelihood of poverty, health problems, insecure work and single parenting. These intersectional issues mean some people are almost certainly going to need support and yet, due to the spiral of inequality, they will be much less likely to find it.
How will a blind user apply for a mortgage payment holiday if the digital service isn’t compatible with screen readers? How will an elderly user with arthritis order medication online if they can’t tab through the products using a keyboard? How will a dyslexic user apply for support if they can’t read the font on the website? How will someone with low literacy who is self-isolating work from home if they can’t understand their instructions? How will a victim of domestic violence whose only lifeline is a smart phone reach out if the website isn’t optimised for mobile? How will a single parent with young children apply for help if the service keeps timing out?
In these circumstances, the consequences of digital inaccessibility are grave.
We may not be able to give everyone a computer and digital skills, but we can make sure digital services are accessible for people who do have access to the internet, and we can design reasonable adjustment pathways for everyone else.
At Kainos, our work with national healthcare providers is helping people with a broad range of disabilities, access needs and diverse protected characteristics access the support they need online through accessible, WCAG2.1 compliant digital services.
We’re designing inclusive services for government departments, conducting remote user research to understand user needs, and workshopping online the inclusive design of multi-channel and non-digital pathways for users who need reasonable adjustments.
We have a clear and proven set of digital accessibility rules in the WCAG2.1AA standard. We also have our own Kainos Inclusive Design Toolkit that gives us the tools we need to design and build services that work for users with all disabilities and protected characteristics in a range of complex and intersectional situations.
There is really no excuse for chucking inaccessible services online and hoping for the best. We know they don’t work for huge numbers of people. We can apply a ‘filter’ of equality and consider services through the lens of diversity to fix biased designs.
Recognising our increasing dependence on digital services, the government has introduced new Accessibility Regulations. Digital accessibility is a legal requirement for public sector services. The deadline for compliance is September 2020.
In addition to this, the Equality Act protects the right to fair treatment. It expects companies and services to provide fair access to everyone, plus reasonable adjustments to help people with disabilities.
Regardless of whether it’s public or private sector, when the way a service is provided has a disadvantaging impact on someone’s life and protected characteristics are a factor, that’s indirect discrimination, and cases like this can end up in court.
Believe me, spend some time working in Inclusive Design and you will quickly learn that digital services are not created equal.
I would urge anyone selling essential items like food and domestic products, anyone providing everyday services like banking and utilities, and of course every public sector service provider to consider the digital accessibility of their online services before this risk becomes a tragedy which in turn becomes a court case.
Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if accessibility and inclusive design is something we can help you with.
Sources and further reading
I drew inspiration from several different sources and news articles when drafting this post. A full list of them is available below if you’re interested in additional reading on this subject.
Coronavirus: Fears of exclusion from online interactions.
BBC News, 22 March.
Anyone can get coronavirus – but how you fare depends a lot on who and where you are.
The Independent, Wednesday 8 April.
Britain has a hidden coronavirus crisis – and it’s shaped by inequality.
The Guardian, Wednesday 15 April.
Coronavirus: Supermarkets face mass legal action over ‘discrimination’.
Disability News Service, 16 April.
Equality and human rights considerations in access to food and essentials.
Equality and Human Rights Commission, Wednesday 22 April.
Digital divide ‘isolates and endangers’ millions of UK’s poorest.
The Guardian, Tuesday 28 April.
Coronavirus: Higher death rate in poorer areas, ONS figures suggest.
BBC News, 1 May.
Exploring the UK’s digital divide.
The Office of National Statistics.