I’d like to start with why we’re having this conversation. Mo, can you give me an example of the problems you as a blind person face when trying to access your run-of-the-mill web content?
Sure. One of my favorite examples is sites that offer digital calendars. You know, for example, so you can book a hair appointment or a table at a restaurant? Oftentimes, these sites won’t make any sense to me because they forgot to include the order the elements on the page should be read in. So if there’s one row of fields to input data like ‘first name,’ ‘last name,’ and ‘phone number’ and then a second row below that with all of the ‘submit’ buttons, my screen reader will first read all of the field names in the first row to me and then all of the button labels. But I can’t see the visual layout. So I have no way of knowing which fields and buttons belong together. It’s worth noting that the solution to this problem is fairly easy and that our Accessibility Developer Guide shows you exactly how to do it.
Speaking of the developer guide, I’ve been talking to a lot of accessibility advocates recently and it seems almost everyone is self-taught. Are there any schools here in Switzerland that have made accessibility a part of their program?
There are a couple. A friend of mine is studying Information Technology at the ABB Technikerschule in Baden and they worked on an accessible web content project, for example. The F+F School in Zurich comes to mind, too. They offer students a couple of half-day courses about accessibility. Generally, it’s still quite rare but I think the topic is definitely gaining momentum.
I agree. Last summer, when we were at the front-end conference, representatives from different universities stopped by our booth to chat with us. It seems a lot of them have one-off events where they talk to students about accessibility and inclusive design. But very few have actual lectures or seminars about these topics. Which is unfortunate, especially because we’re not talking about something that only affects a handful of people. Color blindness, for example, isn’t an officially recognized disability in Switzerland. But that doesn’t change the fact that 1 in 200 women and 1 in 12 men are color blind. These and many other people such as the elderly stand to benefit from accessibility, too.
Good point. So where does Switzerland stand as far as digital accessibility goes?
I would say that the meat and potatoes are there and that we’re making progress. The national accessibility studies we conducted in 2004, 2007, 2011, and 2016 show that a lot has changed in the past 15 years. For example, government departments and government-owned and -affiliated corporations have made great strides. But the private sector still has quite a ways to go. So compared to countries like the US where the law dictates that all companies must make their customer-facing web content accessible, there’s no legal pressure. And even if the laws here were more extensive, the culture is different. Swiss consumers are hesitant to enforce their rights in court, which can take several years.
But the developments overseas are having an impact here.
Oh, absolutely. For one thing, the US is a huge market and all companies who want to do business there must comply with local legislation, regardless of where they’re headquartered. A couple of years ago, for instance, it was decided that airlines who failed to make their online offerings accessible would face substantial fines. Consequently, most airlines scrambled to comply.
Then there are all of the big, influential tech companies like Microsoft and Google who are pushing accessibility, even beyond the legal requirements. So more and more people everywhere are starting to take notice of how important it really is.
As a foundation, we’re experiencing this upswing firsthand: the increasing demand for accessibility services means we’re usually fully booked for about 1 to 2 months in advance. I’m not complaining, of course, this is a very positive and encouraging development.
I especially appreciate when companies approach us because they want to fix the bad rating we gave them in an accessibility study. Like Digitec, one of the biggest Swiss e-commerce platforms for consumer electronics.
Why should an already successful business like Digitec care about a bad rating?
Because e-commerce businesses have so much more to lose than, for example, hair salons and restaurants. Switzerland is home to around 10,000 blind and 325,000 visually impaired people. Sure, all of these people can shop at brick-and-mortar stores. But it’s impractical because you have to ask people for assistance to find the items you’re looking for. An inclusively designed online store, on the other hand, lets you shop independently.
Besides Digitec, what are some other online stores you can recommend?
Generally speaking, it is very hard to recommend any online shop, as none are really fully accessible. In Switzerland, I’d say the current version of the online grocery store LeShop is one I can manage with. The clothes store Zalando is okay, too. To be honest, though, I can’t think of a single e-commerce platform that’s 100% accessible. Obviously, as an IT guy, I’m pickier than most blind users. But I’m also better at finding workarounds and hacks so I can use a lot of stores that are actually pretty poorly designed. So far, the only store I’ve come across that shows a high level of accessibility is Amazon. Unfortunately, though, they often won’t ship to Switzerland.
What are the main issues you come across when you shop online?
Oftentimes, stores will forget to add a meaningful description to their images. So instead of ‘umbrella, green, 15 Swiss Francs’ my screen reader will say something like ‘item nr. 112’ – which tells me absolutely nothing.
Some stores have one of those CAPTCHA things so they can tell human users and bots apart. Basically, they show you some blurry, distorted letters and numbers that you have to type in in order to continue. These images are impossible for my screen reader to decipher.
But the most frustrating thing is when a store itself is accessible but whatever payment service provider they work with isn’t. You spend all that time picking out what you want and then you get forwarded to some site where you can’t figure out how to enter your credit card data. Argh!
Wouldn’t a usability test with a single blind test user have been enough to catch an obvious flaw like the checkout process not working?
Of course! But the problem often has to do with how interconnected most websites are. For example, we recently certified the accessibility of the Swiss Federal Railways’ website. But they link to several partner sites like tourist attractions and hotels which are not affiliated with the Swiss government and thus not obligated to make their content accessible.
It’s not totally out of your control, though. What you can do is require all of your partners to provide accessible content. Or, if that isn’t possible, you can at least warn the user that they’re about to be taken to a partner site that may not be accessible. I quite like PostFinance’s solution: they list all of the sites they link to and provide information about which ones are accessible and which ones aren’t.
What is the biggest hurdle for accessibility in Switzerland right now?
Apart from the lack of legal pressure we talked about, I think it’s mainly the additional cost of making your content accessible. Especially if you’re convinced that this will only benefit a small number of people. More than 200,000 people in Switzerland currently receive disability benefits and each and every one of us will develop disabilities like poor eyesight and hearing impairments as we age. So we need to stop brushing accessibility off as a minority topic. Accessibility is about designing products and services that as many people as possible can use and enjoy.
And what would you say has been the most positive development recently?
The growing awareness. There are a number of privately-owned companies that actually want to make their content accessible. Also, more and more of the government-owned and -affiliated companies are starting to understand that accessibility makes a lot of sense. On the one hand, you’re making your products and services available to a wider audience. On the other hand, you’re making sure the public has a positive image of your brand. Like Sylvia said earlier, the Swiss don’t usually take companies to court to get what they want. But they will complain to consumer affairs publications and TV shows like ‘Kassensturz.’
Exactly. And as a member of the Impact Hub Zurich, I can say that social entrepreneurship is big right now. Young people today want to make more than just money – they want to make a difference. So a company that voluntarily pushes accessibility and other CSR topics will not only win customers but attract top talent, too.
For more information about the Access for all foundation, please visit access-for-all.ch.
For more accessibility-related content, head over to ? testingtime.com/accessibility.