Inclusion and Accessibility Labs on News Talk – Taking Stock

Interview with Mandy Johnston

Mandy Johnston: Welcome back to Newstalk’s Taking Stock, I’m Mandy Johnston. Now, new independent analysis from Inclusion and Accessibility Labs and the National Council for the Blind of Ireland has found that up to 68% of the country’s leading service websites are inaccessible to over 600,000 people in Ireland who live with a disability. This is all despite the fact that legislation currently mandates all public service websites to be digitally accessible, with similar requirements that are set to come into force on websites for the private sector in 2025 under the EU Accessibility Act. To discuss this now, we are joined by Kyran O’Mahoney, Chief Technology Officer with the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and Founder and Director of Inclusion and Accessibility Labs. Kyran, you are very welcome to Newstalk, thanks for joining us today. Just before we get into the figures, Kyran, can you just talk to me a little bit about Inclusion and Accessibility Labs, what exactly do you do there?

Kyran O’Mahoney: So, I think it’s probably best if I take a little step back first if that’s okay, just to set some context. I joined the NCBI about 3 years ago as their CTO, and that would be a role that’s a little unique in the charity sector. I come from the private sector, so I have ran and build many development teams and built websites and mobile applications and one of the things that I decided to move away from that is when I heard a statistic in Ireland that less that 20% of people in Ireland with sight loss are actually employed, and that literally bowled me over and I decided that there was an opportunity here for me, as someone with sight loss myself, I grew up with around 17% vision and I had always used technology as an enabler so no matter what obstacle I encountered I used technology to overcome it, whether it’s doing a presentation in a meeting or learning or whatever the case may be and when I heard that statistic I decided to join NCBI and take up with role of CTO. But after a year or two it became really clear that it is not just sight loss that technology is a key enabler for, it’s for all people with disabilities. So we, myself and the CEO of NCBI, founded a company called Inclusion and Accessibility Labs and what that does is we want to help companies, both public and private, on their journey towards making their websites fully accessible for people with disabilities. I would emphasis, before we go into the statistics of this report, globally we are on a journey here, Europe is on a journey and Ireland has an opportunity to become a leader in digital accessibility, because through companies like ours we’re here to support people and educate them on how you can make your website inclusive to everyone.

MJ: And you mentioned there Kyran that when you were working in these companies, you used technology yourself to kind of aid you, what kind of technologies does someone like you have to rely on? 

KOM: For my example, I have extremely low vision so I would be on the borderline of technically blind, legally blind but, as you can see, I can see around me a little bit, so I would use magnification. If I were to go on Newstalk website I would zoom in on the text and then someone who, let’s say is lower vision than me, would have the text read back to them by what’s called a screen reader, which is a piece of technology that they would install on their computer that reads the text back to them, because obviously if you’re blind, you can’t see the screen. Similarly across other disabilities, like people who might have an auditory issue need subtitles or if there’s motor issues they might not be able to use a mouse, they might use a keyboard or a stick or whatever the case may be. What we’re trying to show people is that it’s not about rebuilding your website, it’s about tweaking it to make it inclusive to everyone, can you click on a button on your website without using a mouse?  

MJ: Now, talk to me about some of the findings then, the websites you looked at, how many you looked at and what the statistics are telling you about accessibility and beyond what we do tend to this of, which is visually impaired people, what are the other obstacles that people encounter? 

KOM: So this report specifically focuses on what it’s like to live a life in Ireland with a disability and throughout Covid, everyone became hugely reliant on digital, it’s how you did you shopping online, you know you were encouraged to do your shopping online through e-commerce, grocery shopping, how you got your news, how you booked your vaccination, etc. and all those kind of things, so what we felt that was really important and I think this is about advocating for the people that lived through that and had those obstacles in place, so we decided to look primarily at services websites, so if you look from the time that someone gets up in the morning, what are type of websites and mobile applications that they need to interact with so we looked at news websites for example, what are the top 5 news websites in Ireland and we found only 2 of them could be digitally accessible, if you think about it, just keeping up to date on the latest news and information is a critically important right as a person, you want to know what is happening in the world. Similarly, from social media, we looked at the top 5 social media sites in Ireland the ones that are used and we really found that 2 of them are digitally accessible but in those cases, I would say kind of. So, let me give an example; if you were tagged in a photo, as many people are in these days and you want to open up your associated app and you say ‘oh I wonder what’s in that photo, I wonder who is in that photo with me’, but as I mentioned before if you have a screen reader, that photo says ‘image of people’, that really doesn’t tell you anything about that photo. And then, let’s say you’re going through your day and you want to buy a new shirt or dress online or something like that, but you can’t actually click the add to cart button, when you look at Ireland’s top retailers, we only found that 2 out of the top 5 could be considered digitally accessible, so a pattern really started to emerge, that anywhere between, no matter the service industry that we picked,  60% and 70% of those websites were excluding people with disabilities. What I think is really important about this report is that we didn’t just look at public sector where people are obliged to do it under legislation, we looked at all websites. If I were an e-con manager, and I’ve worked in e-commerce teams before, if I’m excluding up to 30% of my potential customers that just doesn’t make financial sense because I think people with disabilities want to buy, want to shop online too, or order a taxi, they want to do all of the same things that everyone else does because people with disabilities spend money as well. 

MJ: Look as you say, over 600,000 is not an insignificant part of the population, but also, it’s the right thing to do, not to exclude what is in some cases a very vulnerable part of our society, why do you think things are as bad as they are, because surely businesses or the public sector aren’t doing this intentionally. 

KOM: Yeah, and I really want to stress I think we are all on a journey here, because I think technology evolves so quickly so I think, through companies like Inclusion and Accessibility Labs, our job is to advocate for and let people know that this is a real problem, legislation is there to let people know that you have to do it, there’s more legislation coming that everyone has to do it, but ultimately, how does it get that way? Well, as someone who has managed teams of developers before, I have never meet one engineer or one developer in the hundreds that I have worked with that doesn’t want to make a website accessible, but sometimes, you know in any project, as you get towards the end budgets and timelines become tight, you say well we’ll fix accessibility in version 1.1 and then we’ll fix it in 1.2 and then you’ve made so many changes throughout the project that accessibility becomes that little bit more challenging. But what I’ve found now, is that there are a set of standards called the WCAG standards, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and they are an international standard, and they are recognised in the legislation in Ireland, in Europe, in China, in many countries around the world. What we’re trying to showcase now is that it’s not about rebuilding your website, you can actually work with companies like ours and we would be able to support you in making the necessary changes to make your website fully inclusive to everyone. 

MJ:  And it’s not just a good thing to do, they are going to have to do it by law eventually, there are people there to help you, so you don’t have to start from scratch.   

{reintroduced the podcast and Kyran}.  

Kyran, just to turn to the evaluation that you did of sites and not to focus on all of the negative, was there somebody or a particular industry who does it well? 

KOM: Oh well that’s a *laughs* tough question, I wish I could say yes and that’s the reality. I think if you look at public sector, public sector in Ireland is about 30% compliant, all of our government sites. We did a piece of research earlier this year, when we looked at schools, we looked at education, we looked at all government sites, and you tend to see about 30%, in schools, actually, it was 0% which is really worrying. In the case of more private sector, if you look at the top 100 companies in Ireland, so these are the top 100 companies by earnings, you see 28% are compliant, that’s hard to believe, you know, and that’s why I think why having conversations with you today and letting people know. There’s 3 reasons as to why you should do this, there’s the legislation that’s coming for all companies so why not get ahead of it, by 2025 you will have to do it under law, there’s also most companies nowadays have a diversity and inclusion agenda but what I always point out and I’ve been at many discussions with people and companies and the top 100 companies in Ireland nearly all have diversity and inclusion agenda but if you can’t apply for a job on their website or order your favourite clothing on their website, are you really focused on your diversity and inclusion? But the final thing I’d say is that there is a commercial reality to do it, but the reason I really wish people would pick is that it’s the right thing to do. 

MJ: Absolutely yeah. 

KOM: it’s the right thing to do.  

MJ: And what about banks, did you look at those at all? Because that is an important part of all of our daily lives and everyone is online now, how did they fare? 

KOM: Eh, we did look at banks, and I would say that one of the interesting things about the banking sector is that they have realised that this is an important thing to do.  

MJ: They have realised? 

KOM: They have realised, now they are not there yet but as we looked across Ireland’s top 3 leading banks, I would say that they are committed to making their apps and websites accessible. Now I’m sure as I say that a number of people will be listening going, well I’m blind or visually impaired or have this disability and they’re not there. But we’ve been working with many banks at the moment in terms of getting them on the journey of becoming digitally accessible and I do commend that because they recognised that this is something that they should do. 

MJ: I have written in the past about disabilities and I got an amazing, probably one of the biggest reactions that I’ve ever got to anything was I was writing about people having a disability and an added obstacle in their pathway is how they navigate the system and they find navigating the system difficult enough without now everything being online, I can only image that has only added to it. Really diversity and inclusion and all of this accessibility should be as intrinsic to any government department or government agency as ESG is now, do you see any sense that they’re doing better or beyond what’s required in the legislation, making any inroads to be better at this type of inclusion. 

KOM: Well I think that I would like to stress again that we really are at the start of the journey. 

MJ: But isn’t that incredible with over 600,000 people and we are still only at the start of the journey, given that we live our lives online? 

KOM: I 100% agree with that, I’ve grown up with sight loss and tried to interact with websites and it can be challenging, and I would love to be able to stand up and say that we’re perfect or that there’s a certain sector that’s amazing but that is just not the case at the moment. For a long time, previous to reports like this, it was more anecdotal, whereas now we’re looking at it as a whole. We intend to do that, these reports from Inclusion and Accessibility Labs we are going to run them every year and hopefully sit down with you next year and say, we were at 60% or 70% exclusion and now we’ve dropped, and that’s where we should be year on year, saying Ireland is benchmarking itself as being better and better. But what I do think is important is that you are seeing more and more even at government level, you know as we’re talking to government departments saying this is part of our agenda now and we have spoken to all the key parties, we have spoken to most of the government departments that are out there and they do realise that this is something that they need to do, which is a great first step. By 2023 and as I said, if we’re talking about this again, I would love to be sitting down, now it would make a terrible news story, talking to you saying every website that the government has is accessible and wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing to say? It mightn’t be headline grabbing but I would love it personally and you know, as we hit 2025, when the new legislation comes in, we start looking at the sectors across Ireland and say, I as a disabled person in Ireland, which I am, feel very included in Irish society and that’s what I’d love to be able to say in 2 to 3 years’ time. 

MJ: Well, we’ll definitely have you back to look at the figures but before we let you go, can you just give us some practical tips for a company who might be looking at their website now, I actually have to do better, what’s the first thing they should do? 

KOM: the first thing I would say, the first thing we encounter typically when we go on a journey to support someone is that person get very concerned, particarly in the private sector, is about their brand, will this impact my brand, will this website look like a website that is built to be accessible and that’s just not the case, you know? Most of the people that we’ve worked with in IA Labs, their website to someone that is fully abled, looks exactly the same as it did before we started. That’s the first thing I would say, there is no risk of it impacting a specific brand guideline that you might have. The second thing, there are some great tips that you can do, look at the colour contrast on your website, if you’re using grey text on a grey background and someone that has full sight is struggling to see it, can you imagine what someone with limited vision is struggling with, can you increase the font size on your website, do you have videos up on your website do they have subtitles, are they captioned? Those type of things are very quick fixes that you do to impact many many people and what I would say as well is that, throughout any development process, you might start with a page looking one way and as you go through and build it, you change it and tweak it, at the very end just check again, is the hierarchy of that webpage the same, does it have a clear heading, do the links on that webpage, rather than it says read more, but if I was on that webpage as someone with a screen reader, and I got to read more, read more means nothing to someone who’s using a screen reader, have you labelled all your buttons correctly, and again all of this are small changes, they’re not big development changes.  

MJ: But they could make a big difference. 

KOM: And they make a big difference yeah. 

MJ: Obviously it can add value to people’s websites, a competitive advantage in some instances, it’s obviously the right thing to do but Kyran, for now, thanks very much for giving us the details of that report and we will certainly have you back next year and hopefully we will be making progress.  

KOM: Thanks so much for having me today.