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For the latest in our ‘Skip to Content’ interview series, Tom speaks to Robin Christopherson. MBE, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet.

If you don’t know already, AbilityNet are one of the leading authorities on digital inclusion, certainly in the UK – providing support and leadership for improved access to the web and other digital services.

Robin spoke to Tom about why he cares so much about using the web for good, why accessibility is so important, and what we can all do to make a difference.


Who are you and what do you care about?

I’ve been working in technology for the last 25 years for the same organization for ability net, and we’re a Technology and Disability charity. So I’m all about playing with technology to make sure that people regardless of you know, need or impairment are able to get the most out of work, education, leisure, you know, everything’s digital these days. And technology can not only help you access that digital life that you know, it’s kind of front and center these days. But also with the right adjustments, the right adaptations, in some cases, some specialist tech, then you can overcome whatever barriers you have, like myself, I’m blind, to be able to be an active, you know, play an active part in that. That life. But as we’ll talk about no doubt a little bit later on.

There are some hurdles if things aren’t inclusive in the digital space. But yeah, really lucky to have been playing with tech that’s just got better and better, and is helping more and more people live really inclusive independent lives for well over two decades.

How do you personally go about explaining the importance of online accessibility to someone who’s never even considered it?

That’s a really good question. I mean, it’s so important, all you really need to say to people is you know, just think about how much you rely on your phone, on the internet, on email, whatever it might be in the digital space, and imagine that that’s taken away, or it becomes infinitely harder for you to do. It’s frustrating anyway, when websites aren’t designed to be easy to use, for example, they’re not intuitive. Or if you’re using a device where the touchscreens, you know, playing up, you know, like, it’s one of the older devices, when touchscreen technology wasn’t really quite there, everyone’s sort of familiar with the idea of having to deal with a touchscreen, which every second tap isn’t registering on some cheap appliance, for example, with an early touchscreen. But even more than that even more tangible, you can ask them to do some really simple things. On most desktop browsers, you can just do CTRL minus a few times, and that text will be so small, you’ll be struggling to see it. So you know, just ask them to bang Ctrl minus a few times or Command Minus. And, okay, that’s, that is a problem, you know, that’s really difficult.

And that’s what it’s like, for some people with a vision impairment, for example, take their phone out into the sun, ask them to work the brightness down on their screen, until you know, they would struggle to see it or just pick a website that hasn’t got good color contrast and ask them to have a go. And just, you know, keep it like that for half an hour, half an hour, that’s all we’re asking. They will be tearing their hair out. Imagine you can never put those settings back, you’ve got to live with that for the rest of your life. That’s what you know, dealing with inaccessible websites with poor color contrast, for example, or ones that don’t let you increase the text size can feel like and how it will, you know significantly impact those people.

Every single day of their lives. You know, websites are so far from being universally inclusive, that these are the challenges that people face on your browser, just start hitting the tab key on any webpage and see how many times you lose the focus because maybe it’s jumped somewhere unintuitive in a kind of a weird tabbing order, or maybe because the highlight isn’t there at all. Or it could be that it’s, you know, focusing on hidden elements that the designer never intended. To gain focus, but didn’t actually check with the tabbing order.

So there are so many times when it’s really easy to show people what it feels what inaccessibility feels like, for me, as a screen reader user, you know, I rely on speech output, you can just triple click the home button on a on a smartphone or the side button. There are gestures on other devices to bring up the speech, and just ask them to drag their finger down an Amazon app webpage of products or the website itself, all of the product images are massive, long strings that will then be spoken out and really mess with your ability to access that content.

Thankfully, the other important elements of Amazon’s website or app, for example, are intractable with you know, they’re inclusive. So you know, you actually can use those, but still, you have so much garbage to listen to. And that’s the same on so many websites, web pages as well. So you know, there are simple things you can do, how do

How do you think the internet will change over the next 10 years, and what specific features or habits that exist now do you hope will be seen as from their time?

I just want to step back to kind of give a very brief history of the kind of progression of UI.

So you know, the desktop browser came along first. And the web developers were throwing the kitchen sink at it, you know, as soon as something else came along, you know, JavaScript, Ajax, pop ups, Flash, all these different things, people really went to town. And that was really challenging for a lot of people, because there was inconsistencies in how things were done. You know, there was no standardization in UX, UX wasn’t even really a thing. And a lot of things were very, very challenging. And if you think about what I was just talking about a moment ago, where people with different impairments, different access methodologies have extra kind of more extreme requirements, then they become, you know, extremely unusable, or, you know, very, very challenging for those people as well.

Then mobile came along, you know, 10-15 years ago, we started to have smartphones, with touchscreens, and everything was distilled down into, you know, a fifth of the size and eighth of the size. And that meant that web developers, web copy editors had to impose a lot more discipline on themselves, they couldn’t, you know, put in nearly as much as they needed to do, they had to cut the copyright down to about a third of you would have on a desktop, they had to really think about the UI really limit the number of controls. And that really helped with usability. And it really helped with accessibility and inclusion as well.

Luckily, to the big players like Apple, and Google with Android kind of followed close behind, they made sure that the building building blocks for WebKit in the case of iOS or UI kit, in the case of doing a an app on iOS, and Ditto with Android, you know, the building blocks were really very inclusive, you actually you had to actually break accessibility by not following the steps that they had outlined, or going custom with certain controls. And, you know, certainly that did happen in a lot of cases, I’m not saying that every iOS app, or website is accessible, you know, that’s been optimized for iOS, but just the discipline of having to go to a much smaller screen size was brilliant, and that really helped a lot of people across a wide range of disabilities, and just everybody else as well. In the future, in the next five or 10 years, screens are gonna get smaller, I mean, I’ve already got, you know, a tiny screen on my wrist.

You know, screens may go away altogether. And a lot of people are talking about the Third Age of computing, they had desktop or mobile. And now we’ve got like ambient computing, where you just talk to the air, and you get, you know, really useful results, there may be a screen involved that might not, you know, ties in with all of these things about computers being scattered all over your body all over your house, all over the environment. And there will be something intelligent on tap for you to be able to interact with. So I think the future of the Internet is going to be one of hopefully simplification further simplification because people have come to expect much more discipline, much more thoughtful design when it comes to UI and UX. But also, whoever’s developing the, you know, apps and websites of the future probably won’t be able to assume anything about the platforms that they’re going to be consumed on.

You know, if Wikipedia hadn’t been there or there abouts with regards the accessibility of their content, then they wouldn’t have been the go to for the echos or other smart speakers to be able to just scrape that content and have it spoken back to us in a very intelligent way. So you just don’t know what platforms your content is going to be delivered through. And we’re gonna see a massive proliferation of platforms, as we’ve seen over recent years, you know, transparent screens, every shop window or bus stop that you pass, you know, those sheets of glass are now going to be delivering content to you, you’re probably going to have similar screens on your face, Apple glasses, probably the gen one this year. And gen two for the consumer model, coming up in 2023. Just you know, the rumor mill, but still, you know, there’s going to be a massive increase in the platforms that you’re going to be delivered on? How can you make sure that your content is going to be fit for purpose across platform? Well just follow the accessibility guidelines. They’re all about separating content from presentation, because people need to be able to apply their own presentation, whether it’s text size, having it spoken out, etc.

There’s gonna be so many reasons why the accessibility guidelines would just make products that are fit for purpose. Over the next 5-10 years,

If you’re with someone who needs to check how accessible their website is, but you only have five, but they only have five minutes. Talk us through how you go about showing them.

Cool. Yeah, that’s a really good question.

I’ve kind of covered it earlier, in sort of things that they can readily do to see if it isn’t accessible, but to make sure it is accessible, then there’s a brilliant acronym sculpt from Helen Wilson at Worcestershire County Council, which we often use in our blog posts and webinars and things. If you just search for sculpt, and accessibility, you’ll see this infographic online, it’s really really good as an aide memoire and particularly for people that are new to accessibility.

So what does it stand for? S is for structure, good use of headings, semantic, you know, use of headings and to structure the page properly. So yeah, it’ll be teaching people about headings, see us for colors, make sure that they are sufficiently contrasting for people that have a vision impairment. And they don’t use danger color combinations like red, green, blue, yellow, next to each other, or in a, you know, key to a graph or a chart or something for people with color deficit conditions, you is actually for use of images, just go with it. And that’s about alternative text, making sure it’s appropriate and present. And also using images to kind of backup text, the meaning of text, etc, to split up, you know, large chunks of text and also to add important information for people that you know, find a lot of language a lot of just straight text difficult.

They reckon that the average literacy age of people in the UK is nine reading age of nine, which is quite shocking, really. But that would certainly help by backing it up with images, L is for links, making sure that links make sense out of context, please don’t just make the link the part of a link in a sentence just like here, click here for blah, blah, blah.

Because for screenreader users like myself, I pull all those links up into a list to find the contact us one or the you know, something that I’m expecting or hoping to find on a page. And if it just says more, for example, then that’s not going to make sense to me. So good use of links as well.

P is for plain language, plain English. If you search for plain English, it’s a thing capital P capital L, it’s about making choices about simple use of words, go for it and good old Anglo Saxon word rather than Latin or Greek origin word. And then that’s really going to help those people who find you know, reading a challenge and it’ll help everybody else with a learning difficulty too. And the last one is T for tables.

Please don’t make or use tables to you lay out your your web pages or your email, you know, marketing campaigns or whatever it might be. Tables should just be for data. And when you use them for data, try and make them as simple as possible. And not merging rows and columns and things like that.

So yes, SCULPT sounds complicated, but when you’re giving people kind of an aide memoire so that when they are building content, they can make sure that they bear those things in mind, then it is a bit tortured, but hopefully it’ll help them remember in terms of the

When we consider the adoption of accessible digital products, what do you think is the biggest challenge?

I mean, you think it’d be a no brainer making products accessible? Because you’re reaching a massive audience, you know, the purple pound £274 billion pounds per annum you know, in the UK, that’s the estimated disposable income for of people with disabilities and their families. So you know, you don’t want to be turning these people off and making them frustrated, you know, for me, I could easily be the one in our family who’s booking those airline tickets or is buying that product online.

And if I get frustrated, I might go somewhere else and you’ve lost you know, that income from a whole family where we’ve got you know, we’ve got stuff to buy on your you know, we’ve got money to spend on your on your services, etc.

So yeah, but I think a lot of it is kind of lack of awareness and the fact that it feels like it’s a little bit scary. And there’s a lot of work to it. And if you’re not up to speed, then it definitely would feel like that. Absolutely. The first thing to say is that, you know, whilst the guidelines themselves are quite technical, not everyone who touches web or, you know, digital needs to be an expert on them.

There are subsets there are cheat sheets, there are checklists, things that people can do, depending on your role. For the organization as a whole, it’s really important that you think about embedding accessibility across everything that you do. So AbilityNet, I’ve got this process called dam, digital accessibility maturity model, where we would walk you through, there’s also a download self serve version, looking at all the areas of your organization across digital, from training, to resourcing, to leadership to you know, support across the different teams, etc, procurement, all of these different things, and help you gauge where you are today, and how you can level up to an area, you know, to a point of best practice to be in that kind of end zone.

And that would really help because the more you embed maturity, the less firefighting, the less actual resourcing because, you know, it will cost a lot to retrofit accessibility if it hasn’t been thought about from the start. And in many cases, it’s not even viable. And that’s a crime, I think, particularly as it’s been a legal requirement for well over well, arguably 20 odd years now, but certainly, since the Equality Act 2010, there is absolutely no excuse because you have to proactively building accessibility, it’s not an excuse to say, well, we’ve never had any complaints, we don’t think we’ve got any disabled employees, for example, or customers.

That’s not an excuse anymore. So yeah, really, really important. Make sure it’s not a bolt on, particularly in light of the fact that you know, it’s now for everyone. Digital Inclusion will just make your products better for every single user,

What is one thing that every single person can do or learn to play a part in the progression towards an accessible internet?

Not everybody has an explicit sort of digital role. So this question may have been aimed at, you know, web developers, designers, copywriters, you know, but I’m actually going to broaden it out, I’m gonna say, every single person, and that is to use the accessibility checker in Word in excel in Outlook. We wouldn’t dream in a professional context of, you know, saving off a Word document, without running the spellcheck, or, you know, sending an email, although I hesitate there, because a lot of people do have typos in their emails. And maybe that’s not right, but you know, send signing off on a professional document, in a corporate setting, without making sure that there aren’t really ugly typos in there.

I’m hoping that there will be the same approach to the accessibility checker, it’s well surfaced in office, right across the different Office apps. Those are the go to places where a lot of digital content is created, even stuff that ends up on the web, certainly digital marketing campaigns, which a lot of people think don’t really count, because they’re only going to be existing for several weeks, you know, it’s kind of not as big a deal.

Everyone can just run a spellcheck. So why not be able to run the accessibility checker as well, it’s really easy to follow, it will give you brilliant tips, it will almost walk you through it. And in doing that, you’re going to end up with a more accessible document. But also you’re going to be learning on the way as well.