Setting the standard: why the public sector must make digital services open for all
Events like the recent Paralympics are a great reminder of the importance of accessibility and ensuring equal and open access for all.
Whilst physical accessibility has taken considerable steps forward – ensuring public spaces are wheelchair friendly for example – it’s arguable that digital accessibility still sadly lags behind.
Many of our public services are now accessed primarily online. But the truth is that millions of citizens struggle to access digital services and information. As the public sector increasingly adopts a ‘digital by default’ approach this means many users will be excluded unless accessibility measures are implemented.
The NHS is taking the lead in this regard. Its Accessible Information Standard, which became law from July 2016, exists to ensure people with disabilities, impairments or sensory loss receive health information in a format that they can easily understand. The aim is to improve communications between patients and their carers with health and social care providers.
It’s a bold and decisive step for the NHS – and demonstrates their desire to improve the experiences and outcomes for patients. It also has strategic and tangible benefits. Evidence shows that improved understanding of health information results in fewer missed appointments, reduced wastage of prescribed medicines, and patients who are more empowered to make healthier lifestyle choices – which all result in cost savings to the NHS.
Whilst the Standard is now mandated in English law, many NHS health & social care providers are still to take the steps towards compliance. North Cumbria University Hospital Trust recently made the news for failing to meet the accessibility needs of partially sighted patients.
This serves as a timely reminder that all NHS organisations should now be providing health information in alternative formats or risk potential legal action.
And it’s not solely applicable to the NHS. All providers of adult health and social care services are also required to comply, which impacts not-for-profits and local government providers of health and social care services as well.
Which begs the question: isn’t it time for all public sector organisations to follow the lead set by the NHS and implemented a similar mandate to the Accessible Information Standard?
There’s no question that being compelled to meet information standards makes organisations look more closely at the needs of the people using their services. This can only be a good thing and the availability of health information in alternative formats benefits everyone.
Easy-read formats or text-to-speech, for example, are tools which can be used by everyone to enhance understanding – not just those groups identified as having a disability or impairment.
Citizens with low literacy (16% of the UK population, according to figures from the National Literacy Trust) or English as a second language (4.2 million adults in England and Wales, according to figures from the ONS) benefit from the availability of information in alternative formats too.
Campaigner for the deaf community Elise Roy once said that when we design for disability we all benefit. We’re seeing this with NHS organisations which are complying with the Accessible Information Standard. Now is the time to challenge all public sector organisations to step up to the plate and ensure all information and services are more accessible to all.
Jason Gordon is a Business Development Manager at Texthelp, a company producing digital inclusion and assistive software products that are used by adults and students worldwide.