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Global Accessibility Awareness Day

May 21 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). The day was started primarily to inspire awareness for Web Accessibility but it is quickly growing into a much larger movement. To participate in the event, PATH Employment Services is publishing this blog post speaking to the organization’s commitment to accessibility. While PATH is an employment service and not web developers or designers, the organization wholeheartedly believes in the purpose of GAAD and is brainstorming ways to fully participate in bringing awareness to web accessibility.
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The rate of employment for Canadians without a disability between the ages of 25 and 64 is 79%. In stark contrast, for Canadians with disabilities, the employment rate is 49%. For people who identify as having a severe disability, this number plummets further to an employment rate of 26%. Improving accessibility to the web could help alleviate some of the barriers that are imposed on people with disabilities who want to be able to contribute through work.
It is important to think of the massive spectrum of people who may need assistive technologies in the discussion of web accessibility. PATH sits at an unique set of crossroads between employment and helping those in need in overcoming barriers. Currently one in seven people (14%) in Ontario identify as having a disability and as the population ages over the next 20 years, this number is only expected to rise. This presents service providers like PATH a great opportunity to reflect on the current state of web accessibility.

So why is web accessibility important to PATH’s clients?

Brad Spencer, the Executive Director of PATH, highlights that accessible software is important to provide the same experience and same opportunity that is afforded to other members of the community. In the same way that every person, regardless of ability, has a right to buy a cup of coffee, that person should also be able to access the internet and find the information that they need.

For PATH’s clients, web accessibility is a blanket term that covers a wide variety of initiatives to provide client’s ease when using PATH’s services. Some of PATH’s clients may be computer literate but have auditory or visual difficulty accessing information online. For these clients, software tools such as magnifiers or screen readers provide a foundation for basic internet access.

The phrase ‘lipstick on a pig’ is often thrown around to describe the current state of accessibility devices. Outside of quick fixes for auditory and visual barriers, web accessibility is really a much deeper concept than just easy download software like screen readers. For some of PATH’s clients, this may come in the form of increasing ease of access. As was pointed out in the blog that started the ball rolling for GAAD, having to navigate for twenty minutes just to find the right homepage is not an ideal situation for anyone.

The often forgotten people in the accessibility discussion are the people who need more assistive technology than just a download. In the conversation about web accessibility, it is imperative that online access for people with learning disabilities or are computer illiterate is heard in the discussion. In the current day and age, it is easy to make the assumption that anyone under the age of 70 knows how to use a computer. However, for some of PATH’s clients who do not have access to a computer let alone the opportunity to develop computer skills, this is simply not the case. For these clients, increasing web accessibility means finding methods and tools that not only provide access, but that also provide meaningful instruction that will help when navigating the online job market.

While these are two very different ends of the computer literacy spectrum, within this range are numerous clients with their own abilities and challenges online. As Lila Hiouaz, an Employment Coordinator at PATH notes that web accessibility is much broader than just applying for a job. Improving accessibility tools could provide PATH’s clients the opportunities to obtain an online education that will help them achieve their dream job or help people that may suffer from anxiety disorders and have difficulty reaching out in traditional avenues. David Berman, a web accessibility expert, said it best when he said that “By improving web accessibility for the people in our society that face the most barriers, we are helping improve the lives of everyone.”

How could a more accessible web impact PATH’s client’s ability to get and keep jobs?

A definitive theme is apparent when discussing how PATH’s clients are impacted by web accessibility. PATH works to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the Hamilton, Ontario community. For anyone that has recently gone through a job application process, it is frustrating to navigate many employers’ websites let alone sift through site after site of job databases. For PATH’s clients, this frustration is increased greatly, even if navigating with current accessible software tools. Adding these barriers to the fact that persons with disabilities are three times less likely to be university educated (9% for people with a severe disability, 27% of people without a disability) and web accessibility is a more important social cause than ever.

Once a job is found, many organizations rely on communication methods like Skype or other video call software to conduct interviews. This again presents barriers for people who may have a disability or illiteracy with video call programs. At PATH, the organization does its best to help guide clients through this process, but PATH is only able to serve so much of the community. Simply put, improvements to communication technology could greatly increase the ease of people living with a disability in interviewing for the right job.

For PATH, considering web accessibility does not end when a client finds a job. An inclusive online environment can help PATH clients in keeping a job. Tools like e-mail and texting are often taken for granted in modern communication with co-workers or supervisors. This too can create barriers to keeping employment. An accessible web environment that helps more people keep their jobs will undoubtedly benefit the entire workplace.

Why should employers consider the accessibility of their website and web platforms (i.e.: online pay stub programs, online T4 access etc)?

First and foremost, the Ontario Government says so. The Accessibility Standard for Information and Communications provides guidance to help Ontario businesses and organizations make their web presence accessible. For organizations of over 50 people, websites have to be accessible according to the World Wide Web Consortium’s “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.” But this really isn’t a satisfying answer, especially considering the vast amount of Canadian employers with less than 50 employees. So what’s holding employers back from increasing the accessibility of their websites?

Tarah Middleton, a manager at PATH, says the most likely reason is a lack of awareness. Most Canadian employers aren’t aware that there is a demand from consumers that websites be reasonably accessible to all members of the public. The increased awareness to physical barriers like steps or narrow doorways hasn’t translated to the online world.

Tammy Robson, who has been the first person most client’s meet at PATH for 6 years, echoes this sentiment. Most employers simply don’t know enough about accessiblity. Employers are unaware that there are a lot of people that have trouble with online accessibility and are unaware of the accessibility standards. Some employers use downloadable programs to comply with legal standards but this is a Band-Aid covering up the main issue. Web accessibility is something that should be taken into account in the planning stages and not as an afterthought.

The issue of cost may also be a reason as to why employers are hesitant to implement assistive online technology or rebuild a website to be accessible. A lot of accessibility adjustments are made after the fact and this method can sometimes be costly, especially for small businesses. This again though, brings back the Band-Aid comparison. If awareness is brought to the forefront, businesses will be able to ‘measure twice and cut once’ when building accessible websites. Additionally, any costs associated with increasing accessibility in Canada can be easily overcome when the larger picture of an increased consumer base is taken into account.

A study by the RBC found that the spending power of Canadians with disabilities is $25 billion. By increasing a company’s accessibility online, a previously excluded consumer base may become able to shop for goods and services, increasing gross income for businesses. When organizations come together around GAAD in the mutual goal of bringing awareness to the needs of people with disability in the online world, the private sector will become aware to the necessity for web accessibility.

So what is PATH doing for GAAD?

Raising Awareness
First and foremost, PATH is using GAAD to raise awareness about the lack of attention shown to an accessible web. Web Accessibility is still very much a term isolated to the communities that are impacted by it (or the lack of it) the most. PATH wants to be a part of the movement to bring web accessibility into the greater conversation about accessibility as a whole and into the forefront of public awareness.

Web accessibility is not the job of just one person, profession or demographic. It must come from the collective voices of all communities if real change is going to happen. To quote Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” PATH supports this belief wholeheartedly.

Day Activities
On May 21st 2015 PATH is also going to be hosting awareness sessions and day activities for team members at PATH. After opening the day with a discussion about what Web Accessibility is and why it matters, PATH has a series of activities throughout the day for PATH team members. All of the activities that are planned are done so in order to help our staff experience firsthand the accessibility divide. Just some of the activities planned are: using speech to text software, trying to navigate online without the use of a mouse and trying to browse online with vision impairment simulators (Macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, Diabetic retinopathy simulation glasses).

Going mouseless is not going to change the world. What it will do though is help raise personal awareness and build recognition for some of the clients who come in to use PATH’s computer services.

Self-Reflection
PATH is also using GAAD as an opportunity for self-reflection. A lot of PATH’s clients are walk-in – they see the office front and come in to talk to employment coordinators and use the computers and other resources that PATH has available. But in the ever growing world online, having an accessible online presence is important to reach out to potential clients that may need the services we can offer. PATH is using GAAD as a way to crowd source ideas as to how we can improve our website to make it more accessible. PATH’s staff will have some ideas with their vast experience working to help people with disabilities, but we are also going to reach out to our clients. No one will know better how to make an online presence more accessible than the very people PATH serves.

To quote David Berman, “The ideal accessible digital world is an online world that is usable by everyone, on any user agent, on any kind of device, with any kind of connection, in any kind of environment.” If you have any suggestions regarding other activities that PATH could take part in, please feel free to comment and let us know.

For more information about Global Accessibility Awareness Day and to find out how you can participate on May 21, please visit http://www.globalaccessibilityawarenessday.org/

PATH Employment Services is a charitable, nonprofit agency that has supported the Hamilton community in advocating for advancing the interests of individuals who have a disability since 1972. For more information about PATH and to learn more about PATH’s services, please visit www.pathemployment.com, call (905)-528-6611, or drop by 31 King Street East Suite 100, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, L8N 1A1.

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