Digital accessibility is good for the hundreds of thousands of people who need it and it also makes a great deal of business sense; we need to focus on ‘accessibility by default’ rather than having it as a mere afterthought – this was the very clear message that speakers harped upon during a conference that the Malta Communications Authority (MCA) organised to mark its 20th anniversary conference.
Entitled ‘Unlocking Digital Value for Society’, the morning session of the conference dealt with ways of tapping into opportunities for enhanced connectivity, as well as mitigating threats in the digital age.
The afternoon session started off with a presentation on the MCA’s renewed vision for the country’s eCommerce strategy for the years 2022 to 2024, as well as a panel discussion on the added value brought about by digital services.
Encouraging eCommerce adoption & trust in digital systems
During the first panel discussion, Lucrecia Dufoo from The Point Shopping Mall spoke about the eBiznify eCommerce training programme that she participated in. The programme is run by the MCA in partnership with the eSkills Foundation and it is aimed at enabling individuals and businesses to acquire the necessary skills for the application of eCommerce.
She said the programme is great because it equips you with several skills that you end up using on a daily basis, it gives you the confidence you need and offers you all the necessary support with respect to available funding and also access to professionals who are available to help you on a one-to-one basis.
Riccardo Genghini from eWitness Malta Ltd and Ian Gauci from GTG Advocates also touched upon legal requirements and GDPR issues related to different fields of digital services. In particular, they delved into ways in which forward-looking and transparent digital services regulation can empower online users, encourage a more level-playing field for businesses, and instill trust in digital systems.
Business offer value by being customer-centric, not just data-driven
On the trend to take data-driven decisions, Calvin Briffa from Born Digital Studio said that it’s important for businesses to be customer-centric to offer value, not just data-driven.
“Businesses do understand the value of their online spaces – the added value lies in ensuring that you are able to stand out in the noise. There are many more people at the party nowadays, so it’s all about standing out, offering value and showing what’s unique about a particular offering,” said Briffa.
An under-served market – 1.85bn people with disabilities around the world
The second part of the conference’s afternoon session focused on digital accessibility. The scene was set by Inka Ilona Taagehøj from Siteimprove, a multinational company that creates cloud-based tools and services for website governance and optimisation.
Giving some very practical examples that organisations can adopt in order to be truly accessible, Taagehøj said: “HTML (the standard markup language for documents designed to be displayed in a web browser) does not discriminate. You have everything you need to make websites accessible. It’s the choices that designers, developers and content creators make that may cause a website to be inaccessible”.
It’s important for organisations to really understand the scope of the disability market, and Taagehøj highlighted the fact that an estimated 1.85 billion people around the world are people with disabilities, which practically constitutes a market the size of China plus the EU.
Additionally, there are elderly people, many of whom benefit tremendously from digital accessibility. The elderly (an estimated 700 million people around the world are 65 years and over) are considered to be the wealthiest demographic in human history and have the need and desire to remain active in society, said Taagehøj.
Digital accessibility should not be a mere afterthought
Following Taagehøj’s presentation, a panel discussion focused even further on the need for digital accessibility in today’s world. Samantha Pace Gasan from the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD), Michael Debattista from the Malta Leadership Institute, Giuseppe Geresia from Siteimprove and Stanley Debono from the Foundation for Information Technology Accessibility (FITA) all stressed that disability should not be a mere afterthought.
Saying that the rules for implementing accessibility are quite simple, Debono suggested that those involved in the creation and design of websites should receive basic training in this regard.
Geresia on his part, said: “We need to make sure to always involve people with disabilities to identify any issues. We need to be clear in our knowledge that accessibility is good for business and of course it is good for people. We need to start promoting and facilitate this – accessibility by default, both in the digital and physical world. Research shows that companies that will have a fully accessible digital environment by 2023 will have a 50% competitive advantage over others that do not.”
21,000 persons with disability registered with CRPD
Talking about the numerous opportunities that exist if we were to make the most of accessibility, Pace Gasan mentioned that 21,000 persons with disability are registered with CRPD, but you also need to consider the several other people who do not identify as persons with disability and a number of others who are not registered (since this is done on a voluntary basis). In the EU, 87 million people are recognised as persons with disability by the European Commission.
Debattista, who described his own personal experiences as a person with disability said that when designing technologies, be it websites, apps etc, the notion of accessibility should be from the ground up. Technologies should adhere to the concept of universal design, making them as accessible as people to everyone.
He too mentioned the need to involve persons with disability during every stage of the development of products and services, especially those developed for the digital world, and stressed the importance of ensuring that technologies are accessible throughout their lifecycle.
Numerous opportunities for persons with disability & businesses alike
“It boils down to attitude – if we see persons with disability as the ‘other’, chances are that people will start to complain about designing tech and see it as a burden, but at the same time there are millions of persons with disability around the world, meaning that there are numerous opportunities for these persons and for businesses alike.”
Debattista went on to point out that persons with disability are not a homogenous group and they go through varied experiences. The pandemic brought a number of advantages with respect to technology, showing, for instance, that remote teaching and learning is a viable tool for everyone. But a number of other issues existed before the pandemic and are inherent issues that need to be addressed.
On smartphone apps, Debattista said several apps often have buttons that aren’t enabled and he described the frustration experienced by persons with disability in this regard. He also brought up an example of websites that he tried using for grocery shopping during one of the partial lockdowns (caused by the Covid-19 pandemic), saying that the poor design of certain websites makes navigation difficult.
You simply end up not using apps and websites that are not accessible, meaning that many businesses are missing out on many opportunities, but it’s important to also keep in mind that such issues can hinder the notion of independent living for persons with disability, he said.
Watch the full conference on the MCA Malta YouTube channel.