Your job is to make sure SBB’s digital products for travelers are accessible. Can you describe a typical workday? What are your main tasks?

I see myself as a mediator between the people with disabilities using our products and the people making our products. A big part of my work consists of raising awareness among my colleagues: I hold presentations and workshops and I also develop guides and checklists to try to make accessibility easier to implement.

Another big part of my work is testing websites and apps. SBB.ch, for example, is a complex website. There are always a lot of new releases and I have to test on a daily basis. When I find issues, I will describe the problem and present it to the developers.

Sometimes we have to brainstorm more inclusive solutions. We’re currently at a stage where a lot of people know that accessibility matters. But few people are already at that point where they think about accessibility from the start.

When you say you test on a daily basis, you mean you run research with users with disabilities?

Normally, we test existing systems with internal staff. But important new systems additionally go through user acceptance testing as well as accessibility testing with external users.

I actually do all of the initial tests by myself. I start with basic requirements like full keyboard access. If these haven’t been met, then we obviously need to go back to the drawing board. If everything I can test on my own looks good, I decide on a case-by-case basis whether that’s enough. Sometimes we work with the Access for all foundation for further testing. The accessibility experts at Access for all have a lot of experience testing websites and apps. Furthermore, they work with experts with different disabilities, which we can’t. The one downside to working with specialists, of course, is that they know more than the average user. They know all the tricks to get the most out of a system.

How did you become involved in accessibility in the first place?

The short answer is that I was in the right place, at the right time. I’ve been working in IT at SBB since 2000. But in 2013, when the deadline to implement the Swiss accessibility law (BehiG) was drawing closer, one of my bosses asked me to take on SBB.ch’s digital accessibility. At the time, I was responsible for the content management system behind sbb.ch, our main site for travelers. So I was the most obvious person to take charge of this project.

The Swiss government gave companies a ten-year period to make their digital products accessible. Why was SBB so late to the party?

The next possible opportunity to make our website accessible was the relaunch of SBB.ch in 2012. Until then, the website administration had been scattered across different SBB departments. Unifying the website was a major challenge that took a lot of effort and required us to bundle many of our resources. Another problem was that we did not have an expert to verify the accessibility of the website.

Last spring, sbb.ch earned an accessibility certification. Why did it work now? What was different than in 2013 and 2017?

Having again failed to reach our goal of becoming accessible in 2017, management decided that we needed to get certified, which really helped move things along. It got more people thinking about accessibility and created a sense of urgency. So we asked Access for all to do a complete site audit of sbb.ch. It still took us a good one and a half years to get certified. But it was well worth the effort and we’re happy that today, most of sbb.ch conforms to the WCAG’s AA level.

Can you explain what the different levels mean exactly?

Sure. There are three levels: A, AA, and AAA, from least to most strict. Take the requirements for accessible videos, for example. To conform to level A, you would need to offer a written transcription of all dialogues. Level AA requires added subtitles that reflect what people are saying in real time. To conform to level AAA, the video needs to be translated into sign language. So you see, the jump from AA to AAA takes a lot more time and money. Level AA has the best cost-benefit ratio, that’s why SBB strives to conform to this level.

So even at a large company like SBB, accessibility is a question of money.

Sure, but by considering accessibility from the beginning of a project, it isn’t nearly as expensive as it would be if it were only considered at the end. Most companies have no idea what accessibility is. If you asked an IT manager about the accessibility of their products, they would probably say that their products are accessible. But if you haven’t intentionally made a product accessible, it probably isn’t accessible. For a website to be considered accessible, it has to satisfy many conditions that most web developers don’t ever think about if they don’t have to. But the SBB has to: because the BehiG law applies to government departments, government-owned corporations, and government-affiliated corporations like SBB, PostFinance, and Swisscom.

How do you recommend smaller companies with fewer resources go about becoming accessible?

Perhaps a good first step would be to book a consultation with an accessibility expert. The accessibility expert can show you what you can do on your own to ensure your website is accessible. You can do quite a lot on a budget: things like color contrasts and full keyboard access are easy to test. Another thing you can do is to just focus on the most relevant areas. What is most crucial to be able to use your products and services? Make those accessible first. Finally, you needn’t necessarily get certified. Simply being aware of the requirements and trying to work them into every new release is a big step in the right direction.

Last question: why isn’t accessibility a bigger topic? What needs to change?

The mindset. I only completed my BSc in Business Information Technology in 2012 and while there were already lectures dedicated to UX and UCD, accessibility and inclusive design never came up. So young professionals graduate without being prepared to make products accessible. And since most private companies don’t require web accessibility, most IT experts don’t proactively push it of their own volition. However, there are some big private companies like banks and telcos, for example, that are starting to make accessibility a requirement.

At the start of an IT project, people tend to focus on functionality and design. In the past twenty years, security was added to the list of requirements. And most recently, responsive design. So most people aren’t thinking about accessibility yet. This is not malintent. It’s simply because most people aren’t in regular contact with people with disabilities and special needs.

Also, if people were aware that accessibility requirements help many more people without disabilities to use the products, e.g. the elderly, it would change the way people think about accessibility. But we tend to underestimate how many real users have different types of limitations. Once we internalize that, the demand for accessibility-savvy engineers will increase, forcing universities to rethink their current curricula. Accordingly, future generations will learn to develop and design for users of all abilities – from the start and without a second thought.

For more accessibility-related content, head over to 👉 testingtime.com/accessibility.

About Joice Silva Loureiro

Originally from Brazil, Joice moved to Switzerland in 1999. Because her civil engineering degree wasn’t accredited, she decided to start a new career in IT. Her journey started with Swiss railway company SBB’s trainee program in 2000. Since then, Joice has held several different IT positions at SBB, for example, as a product manager for internal software programs. Today, she holds a BSc in Business Information Technology from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland. Her current role at SBB is to ensure that the passenger traffic division’s digital products are accessible.