Aug. 13, 2021
For societies to achieve their full potential in the digital age, citizens must be able to use digital public infrastructure to engage with their governments and communities. Despite mounting evidence that inclusive and accessible design can reap large-scale benefits, not all platforms and tools are created with accessibility in mind.
The Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI) team at New America hosted an online event entitled “Designing Accessible and Inclusive Digital Public Infrastructure,” in which five panelists from across the public sector, private sector and civil society gathered to discuss strategies for deploying more inclusive and equitable digital infrastructure. To watch the August 9, 2021 event recording, click here.
DIGI Fellow Hila Levy moderated the panel discussion, which featured Cecilia Muñoz, Senior Advisor at New America, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft, Deon Woods-Bell, Senior Advisor of Global Policy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Samantha Mack, Elections Language Assistance Compliance Manager for the State of Alaska, and Tomicah Tillemann, Executive Director of DIGI at New America. Jennifer Austin served as the American Sign Language Interpreter for the event. The diversity of experience and perspective featured on the panel sparked discussion on how to bring the universal benefits of accessible design to people with disabilities, BIPOC, the developing world, and members of other historically marginalized communities. Here were some of the key themes from the panel discussion:
The Case for Accessibility and Inclusion
In many countries, accessibility is the law. Moreover, it is the right thing to do. Giving everyone the opportunity to engage with products, services, and environments without the need for specialized design is an ideal known as “Inclusive Design” or “Universal Design.”
Panelist Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer, shared her experience as a deaf woman and highlighted the importance of investing in inclusion for its own sake. “If we don't design with the spectrum of all that we are as humanity, we're going to miss out on the opportunity to create good things,” Lay-Flurrie said during the event. “We're not going to provide an equal playing field for people to be productive in education, in employment, in participation, in civic activities.”
When solutions or products don’t prioritize accessibility, they often end up excluding the 26% of the American population that consists of people with disabilities.
Panelist Cecilia Muñoz, Senior Advisor at New America, pointed out that, “one of the mistakes that we make is we assume that the existence of technology means that everyone can access it.” Examples from the digital divide, like the fact that populations less comfortable with English websites have fallen behind in accessing vaccine information, demonstrate the importance of active, conscious inclusion.
Accessibility and Inclusion by Design
Building accessibility principles into digital products and infrastructure can ensure these tools do not create further barriers.
Panelist Deon Woods-Bell, Senior Advisor for Global Policy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke of the importance of “accessibility by design,” where accessibility is a design objective from the very beginning. Accessibility by design is realistic for even the most cash-strapped organization -- open tools exist and augment the capacity of organizations, Examples include:
- Keyboard Compatibility Tools allow navigation and functionality for users via a keyboard, in addition to a mouse or touchscreen
- Screen magnifiers enlarge screens or portions of content
- Screen readers read text and layout aloud and can be used with Braille displays; these require machine-readable text
- Captioning, subtitling (involves translation), transcripts, and alternative text for multimedia
- Color contrast tests for text and backgrounds, and color blindness simulators for images
Jenny Lay-Flurrie also highlighted the resources that Microsoft has been developing to make their products more accessible. Some of the examples she shared with the panel included the Accessibility Checker in Microsoft Office, which tests documents, slide decks and spreadsheets along accessibility and the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which was developed in partnership with AbleGamers Charity, The Cerebral Palsy Foundation, SpecialEffect, Warfighter Engaged and other organizations.
Translation, Localization, and Plain Language
Language is complex and translations can reflect selective meanings, symbolism, and nuance depending on the intended audience. Use of technically correct terminology may not be “plain” enough for a broad audience. For example, the US government passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 to promote clear communication the public can understand and use.
Additionally, the lack of locally relevant content has been highlighted as a barrier to adoption of web-based information in developing countries. Evaluating content availability, translation quality, and message clarity in non-English languages requires early engagement with citizens and users. Moderator Hila Levy highlighted the robust resources and communities of practice available through the U.S. government’s General Services Administration (digital.gov/) to help build accessible and multilingual products online.
Panelist Samantha Mack, who currently serves as the State of Alaska’s Elections Language Assistance Compliance Manager, has been grappling with the challenge of producing accessible election materials for all Alaskans. She helps the state convene translation panels, composed of at least two speakers of each language who translate materials to Alaskan Native languages and dialects, and then backtranslate them to English to check accuracy. These panels have created a glossary of election-specific terminology for Alaskan Native languages.
The State of Alaska includes users without reliable connectivity in rural areas, as well as speakers of oral languages. These communities rely on grassroots outreach and multimodal content, such as spoken phrase audio for recent elections that voters could access on their mobile devices. Drawing translators from indigenous communities may also make content more localized, or adapted to specific locations, dialects, markets, and audiences.
Like Samantha Mack, Cecilia Muñoz emphasized the importance of community outreach for understanding complex challenges such as variation in local and regional dialects or level of literacy in the dominant language. “It's essential for policymakers to reflect on and be drawn from the communities that we're trying to serve,” Cecilia explained. In order to address the need to communicate with and deliver services to different linguistic communities, practitioners must approach the challenges of inclusive design with a greater sense of humility and purpose.
The Power of Inclusive Design in Digital Public Infrastructure
Panelist Tomicah Tillemann also reminded our audience of the power of digital public infrastructure as a whole for increasing accountability and creating avenues for direct citizen-to-government engagement to access benefits and participate in democratic processes. This is largely reliant upon building in the tools and plans for inclusivity emphasized by the other panelists.
As Deon Woods Bell highlighted, deliberate financial inclusion through digital payment tools and access to identity systems can boost participation by women in marginalized communities around the world, accelerating attainment of UN Sustainable Development Goals. She highlighted some of the work being undertaken by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support these efforts in India, Pakistan, Thailand, and other countries.
Almost every development-based or service-rooted program today has an informational or technological component. Civic, governmental, private, and philanthropic organizations are increasingly interested in designing and procuring the right solutions--those that maximize reach and utility, while keeping costs down.
Investing in deliberate enfranchisement of the end user from the outset is more likely to result in higher quality public goods and services that actually function as intended. Thoughtful consideration of diversity of language, culture, and ability, nationally and internationally, will improve the content, ease of use, and uptake of the digital public infrastructure of tomorrow.