DEMOCRATISING THE INTERNET
AT THE RECENT DEFINITELY ABLE CONFERENCE, WE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN ABOUT THE RELATIVELY LESSER KNOWN WORK DONE BY MADA (QATAR ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY CENTER) ON E-ACCESSIBILITY.
Qatar Today gets an the opportunity to learn about the relatively lesser known work done by Mada (Qatar Assistive Technology Center) on e-accessibility.
Based out of and supported by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, this 35-member non-profit organisation works primarily on providing assistive technologies for those with disabilities, and assessing and training their use to improve access to the online world. Mada's efforts in the areas of e-accessibility, policy, R&D and awareness are no less important.
The Internet has changed our lives unrecognisably and being able to get online takes on even greater significance in the life of a person with disability. “It gives them the ability to work or study from home, complete transactions online and access services remotely. Digital access is a right and with the future poised to revolve increasingly around these, this right must be accorded to all,” says Ahmed Habib, Head of Communications at Mada. “People with disability deal with a litany of social, cultural and economic barriers, even in countries that have advanced legislation. They have traditionally been marginalised members of the society and giving them access to these digital tools is an opportunity to break these barriers.” And while keeping inclusivity in mind when designing physical spaces has had relative success in becoming the norm, the battle for inclusion in the digital space is only just beginning in Qatar.
Both in the real and virtual worlds, accessibility does not mean making special provisions but instead build best practices into everything you do – from running your organisation and the way you communicate, to constructing physical spaces and writing programs, Habib feels. “Ensuring accessibility is not a cumbersome, onerous activity that degrades our ability to provide services but is instead built into those services. It's more about common sense.” Also, accessibility not only reduces the impact of a person's disability but also allows them to be more involved. When we see people with impairments in public spaces and interact with them, mindsets begin to change. Many stereotypes, which are the leading cause of obstacles, fall apart, leading to even more access. “It's like a tree that waters itself,” Habib says.
Mada recognises and works towards building up the two major components of digital access – assisted technology and content. “Assisted technology is the equipment, adaptations, and programs that enable access to people with different kinds of disabilities; like alternative keyboard/ mouse, eye-based switches, close captioning or FM loops in public spaces,” says Habib. While these are constantly evolving and Mada works closely with people with disabilities, providing 360-degree service to support them in accessing digital content, the content aspect itself is yet to catch up. If you think Arabic digital content has to ramp up, then it is nowhere close to the work that needs to be done in the space of making this same Arabic digital content disabled-friendly.
But Mada is involved in the other half of the equation too, working with organisations in helping them build their digital systems and policies and training staff that create the content. At the helm of these efforts is Senior e-Accessibility Specialist, Mike Park. “The National e-Accessibility Policy launch by ictQATAR in 2011 (the first of its kind in the region) details how websites, mobile applications, electronic documents, ATMs, kiosks providing e-government services, digital television, basically any information offered electronically, must comply with international standards, specifically the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Access Guidelines ( WCAG 2.0). This spells out extensively the incorporation of best practices in code and usability,” says Park. “And since then we have been working with organisations in Qatar to help them get their websites compliant, in addition to constantly monitoring them. We compile a list of accessible websites on our National Accessibility Monitor and colour code them depending on their degree of compliance and usability.”
While the monitor automatically scans websites every month and gives you an idea
about technical compliance with the standards, the usability (or the human factor) can only be judged by testing it personally, Park says. Currently the monitor has 99 sites; Park hopes to bring the number up to 200 by the end of the year. While this might not seem like a significant number when we consider the scale of the internet, Park assures us that the progress is slow but steady.
“Not very many websites have passed our standards,” he says. “We don't give out our certifications like candy. The Museum of Islamic Art had to really work for it. We sat down with their head of web for four to five months which involved several audits, reviews and training sessions and now they are very close to getting it right.” While Park hopes to see more certified websites in the coming days (currently only two websites – ictQATAR and Hukoomi – have been certified by Mada), what he hopes more is that this would lead to a change in mindsets where developers working on websites automatically adhere to these standards without having to be told to do so and get used to the idea of incorporating access into everything they do. So when they create a website they automatically programme all the links to be keyboard accessible and attached to audio files that tell users what it does, insteading of thinking of it as extra work. “People still ask me why they have to do this and how many blind people could possibily be using the website. But it's not a difficult thing to do; it's just a matter of habit,” he says.
Park conducts a four-day accessibility workshop, free of charge, every few months for developers and web designers. This workshop additionally addresses dealing with Arabic content. “While international guidelines do quote on a general level the use of different languages it's not very specific; but we work extensively on how to make Arabic content usable by everyone in this region,” Park says.
Another challenge they face is the fact that much of this ground work is often outsourced. “It is an awkward thing to work with; relaying information to a middle man, who may or may not be technically sound, who then passes on these documents to the developers in another country. But these developers don't have the advantage of the same training; they just receive an email with plenty of attachments. Many times I have offered to travel to these countries to offer the training but it hasn't really happened,” Park says. One way around it, he feels, is to use home-grown talent. “It's easier for us to work with local web designers and developers; we have seen this in our interactions with Mannai, Fuego, iHorizons and the like.”
Habib feels now it's time to start bringing awareness among decision makers – the VPs of IT and CTOs – the people who are actually procuring the services themselves. “High-level buy-in is necessary so we can create nationwide policies that overlap other sectors. This work can't be done in silo; it is part of a larger ecosystem. “We recognise that in order to achieve true access, we need to work with people in transportation, healthcare, education, cultural engagement, sports and recreation and ensure people with disabilities are taken into account and programmes are designed around them. So our stakeholders are many and we try to see different ways in which technology can be used to create accessible spaces and fit into all these verticals.”
AHMED HABIB Head of Communications Mada
MIKE PARK Senior e-Accessibility Specialist Mada