Digital accessibility is real and tangible

A workshop using real-life examples and first-hand experience of how assistive technology works can result in a deeper understanding of accessibility needs

Tharindu Liyanagunawardena 's avatar
University of Reading
31 Jul 2023
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
hands using laptop

You may also like

Grow your own accessibility allies
4 minute read
Watering can with daisies

We use digital products and apps every day, for banking, grocery shopping, booking appointments, applying for jobs or paying bills. Sometimes, such as for some job applications, an online portal is the only way to reach these services.

So, what if everyone else could use these services but you were locked out?

When digital systems are poorly designed without considering accessibility needs, people with disabilities get locked out of these systems. For example, a user with limited vision may need an alternative way of interacting with an app because they may not be able to use the on-screen keyboard on a smartphone. They may use a screenreader and voice commands. But that can only happen if the app has been developed to support these accessibility needs.

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination against disability and requires providers to make reasonable adjustments. The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 expects public bodies to provide accessible content by default.

What is digital accessibility?

Digital accessibility is the practice of making digital content, software and systems accessible to everyone, including people who may need assistive technologies such as screenreaders or text-to-speech services. In a higher education context, examples of digital content and systems could be learning materials (presentation slides, lecture capture or notes) or learning management systems such as Blackboard, Canvas or Moodle. Considering accessibility needs results in a better product for all users (closed captions, for example, were initially an accessibility aid but they help everyone).

I was a software engineer before joining academia. At the University of Reading, I was a member of the first massive open online course (Mooc), Begin Programming: Build Your First Mobile Game on the FutureLearn platform. The course uses a billiard-like game to teach programming. We had more than 50,000 learners in one running of the course, and one day a learner contacted me to say she could not see the ball moving on the screen. She said that after programming she had to ask her partner whether the ball was moving as intended. She was trying to learn but the material we provided was not accessible to her because she had colour vision deficiency. She could not differentiate the red ball from a green background. I helped her to change the colour of the ball and the background, which instantly made the content accessible to her. This incident sparked my interest in digital accessibility, and I have been an accessibility advocate since then.

So, why don’t people (especially content creators and designers) think about digital accessibility? For myself, it did not register in my mind until I became fully aware of how digital accessibility can affect people. I vaguely remember reading about digital accessibility in an article by Commonwealth of Learning, an inter-governmental initiative to develop distance and open learning. Looking at ICTs for distance education in a developing country for my PhD more than a decade ago, I saw accessibility as more about connectivity or broadband access. I was not aware of digital accessibility until I met a learner with a digital accessibility issue.

Could lack of both awareness and knowledge on how digital accessibility affects people be why content creators and designers are not thinking of digital accessibility? This is why I think we need to show that digital accessibility is not an abstract concept but a tangible issue in daily life.

How can we increase digital accessibility awareness?

From my experience, it took seeing in real life how digital accessibility can affect a learner to make me fully aware of the importance of digital accessibility.

These three tips, which are from my digital accessibility workshops, can help participants get to grips with the reality of digital accessibility.

  1. User stories and real-life examples make digital accessibility real. The University of Reading Look Again digital accessibility campaign in May 2023 (to coincide with Global Accessibility Awareness Day) shared lived experiences of staff and students. We also share user stories on our digital accessibility web area. That said, although we have an open call, we respect people and accept that they may not always want to share their stories.
  2. Allow people to experience assistive technologies. Many people have heard of the term “assistive technologies” but have had no experience with them. A chance to use assistive technologies gives them an understanding of what they are. In my workshops I sometimes get my participants to try out the built-in Windows Narrator screenreader to navigate a website using just the keyboard.
  3. Show why it is important to follow digital accessibility good practice. It is easy to give a list of digital accessibility good practice tips. But without knowing why it should be done in a certain way, it is just a list that you need to adhere to. I demonstrate accessible and inaccessible content using a screenreader. For example, a document with headings and without headings, accessible and inaccessible links and most of all how complex tables are read out by screenreaders.

Digital accessibility is vital for people with accessibility needs but also improves the experience for all users. Increasing digital accessibility awareness will help everyone to create and use accessible digital content.

Tharindu Liyanagunawardena is the digital accessibility officer in Digital Technology Services at the University of Reading.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site