Case study: Government agency adopts accessibility best practice

  • Author: Amajjika Kumara
  • Date: 24 Jul 2013
  • Access: Free

A government department that provides advice on funding for public hospitals, recently embarked on an initiative to change the culture and raise awareness of creating accessible content throughout the organisation. The project is part of its commitment to the Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy (NTS), a whole-of-government approach to improving the accessibility of online government services. Access iQ™ Business Director Amajjika Kumara shares the process and experience of helping one government department adopt accessibility best practice.

Initiated by a phone call from the Independent Hospital Pricing Authority (IHPA) seeking advice on government accessibility requirements, the results of this project are examples of the benefits of adopting accessibility as a strategic management initiative rather than using 'checklist mentality'.

As a newly established government agency, accessibility had not been top of the priority list when establishing a website for the organisation. Rather than creating content that was accessible from the start, the department sent content to a centralised departmental web publishing team who were ultimately responsible for checking the accessibility of documents and content before uploading it to the department's website. Often this content would be returned as it was not accessible, creating a ‘bottleneck’ in the system.

After discussions with the senior managers, the executive decided to ensure that all staff members became both responsible for and capable of creating accessible content as part of their job role. This was achieved through training provided by Access iQ™ and redesigning the agency’s various Microsoft Word templates for accessibility. This approach ensured accessibility became a repeatable process within the organisation and that content provided to the web team for publishing was in an accessible format.

While Microsoft Word was the primary vehicle to create accessible content, it became evident that many staff members were not familiar with some Word functions such as the use of 'Styles' and formatting options. The training covered basic and advanced Word functionality relevant to the creation of accessible content, using the newly redesigned accessible Word templates.

Throughout the process the executive and management were engaged and entirely supportive of the project, which created a culture of acceptance and buy-in with key stakeholders and staff.

The problem

The client experienced the following challenges:

  • Content and PDFs were being rejected for upload to the website by the web team because they did not comply with WCAG 2.0 as per the NTS mandate.
  • Staff had little to no knowledge of creating accessible content or how to turn Word content into accessible web content or accessible PDFs.
  • Sending only a few people on a content course would not solve the problem of inaccessible content because of the distributed content production model and would only shift the bottleneck from the content publisher (who was part of the web team) to a content author.
  • Existing organisational Word templates contained a number of accessibility issues which impacted the production of accessible content.
  • Having limited staff members responsible for converting inaccessible content to accessible content creating a time delay.
  • While it's mandated through the NTS, the department is legally obliged to make their content and services accessible through the Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes (2010).
  • Primary format for content must be html and not PDF.
  • Everyone is a content creator – content for reports were continually produced and distributed. This provided an imbalance in the number of staff who created content versus the number of staff who had knowledge in how to make content accessible.
  • The department is mandated to provide information according to certain deadlines and drivers. 

Addressing and adopting accessibility principles across content and the web certainly addressed all of these issues.

The goals of the project

  • All staff members are able to create accessible content for internal or external documents.
  • To reduce the workload of the content publisher in the web team who had to repair and prepare content for upload to the website CMS.
  • To consolidate the number of Word templates used in the organisation.
  • To standardise Word templates and eliminate variations.
  • To make all Word templates accessible.

The process

In consultation with the client, the engagement broadly followed these steps:

  • Discussion of ramifications, issues and problems with accessibility to date. Accessibility principles were brought into a broader management context that incorporated larger corporate social responsibility goals like diversity in employment (PwD) as well as meeting their immediate needs.
  • We created a plan and roadmap of the steps that we would take and how we would deal with potential challenges and problems.
  • Executive buy-in, comments and agreement were obtained.
  • Internally the project team identified the key stakeholders and producers of content.
  • Discovery workshop with stakeholders who enabled us to:
    • Catalogue existing templates – we found many versions of the same template, much document variation in relation to the applications of styles and minimal standardisation. This often led to the use of word functions that are inaccessible, such as the use of text boxes and tables for layout.
    • Review of useability or fit of templates for the purpose needed by all stakeholders while continually communicating the need for standardisation and where accessibility would impact choices made.
    • Consensus to obtain a final agreement.
  • Review of branding and style guidelines and make necessary adjustments for accessibility (without changing the brand significantly). Some of the brand colours did not meet colour contrast requirements for accessibility and these were subsequently adjusted.
  • Create new templates:
    • Total number of templates were rationalised with one base template able to serve many purposes through the creation of appropriate styles.
    • All templates created based on stakeholder agreements.
    • All templates created to comply with accessibility standards (WCAG 2.0 Level AA) including creating/overriding specific table styles.
  • Accessible templates based on agreements and meetings supplied with a detailed report on observations and changes made.
  • Templates circulated, road tested and feedback received.
  • Make compromises - understanding where compromises needed to be made 'on both sides'. For example, text size should generally be 12 point but with long documents that go into many pages, the compromise to use 11 point text in the templates made a significant difference in the useability for sighted users.
  • Templates finalised.
  • Templates uploaded to the desktop environment.
  • Training for all staff in accessible content creation was conducted which included the use of the new accessible templates. The training also dealt with additional steps required to make accessible Word content into accessible web content. This reduced the need for publishers to make repairs and edits to content and increased the speed at which content could be published.

Observations, results and benefits

  • When the benefits of accessibility and the implications of non-compliance are communicated in management terms to the executive, the project is endorsed more easily.
  • When accessibility is approached as a management initiative (top down) with appropriate communication and involvement from stakeholders, then the buy-in is increased, the project runs more smoothly and the outcomes are maximised.
  • When people are educated in the 'why' and given practical examples of inaccessible experiences, there is less resistance and a keen desire to learn best practice.
  • Some staff still insisted in using tables for layout in word. The accessible alternative would have been to create an interactive PDF form which was not in scope.
  • Microsoft Word is a software package that is easy to use with little training. However many users were not familiar with some of the basic functions of Word let alone key accessibility features. Our training approach would have benefitted from including a basic skills analysis survey of the participants familiarity with Word.
  • There is no legal obligation for someone to disclose their disability in the course of doing their job.  Some staff members came forward to thank the organisation for implementing the project because it made their ability to perform their work much easier.
  • Results would be best monitored in 6 to 12 months to understand compliance, however because training was conducted in a computer lab environment, the hands-on skills obtained by staff could immediately be implemented as soon as they returned to their desks.

Recently the government agency put out advertisements in a major newspaper calling for public comments on two consultation papers. The advertisement includes a call for submissions in "an accessible Word document", indicating a clear culture change within the organisation. Not only is this particular government agency taking responsibility for the accessibility of its own content, but through this request, it makes potential vendors responsible for their part to play in accessible content creation. 

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Want to learn more about WCAG 2.0 and web accessibility?

The Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility, a university-accredited online qualification jointly conducted by W3C member Media Access Australia and the University of South Australia, is a fully assessed six-week program that covers both accessibility principles and techniques. The course provides students with all the essentials needed to achieve compliance with international best practice in accessibility. Accessible documents, among many other aspects of WCAG are covered in Access iQ’s complete guides to web accessibility for content authorsweb developers and web designers.