Culture / Development

Building the Woke Web: Accessibility and Social Justice in Software Development

13 May 2019 3:00pm, by

When we talk about accessibility on the web, we often talk about can someone who is visually or dexterously impaired, but that’s not the only bit of it. While meeting these legal accessibility requirements is important, we can’t forget that the web has systematically left groups of people behind, including the elderly, LGBTQ+, women, people still unconnected, and more — basically those that aren’t the cis white men most commonly building and running the tech industry. In short, the most vulnerable people are kept from the potential of the web.

This is what we talked about and more when The New Stack Makers podcast spoke to BBC Software Engineer Olu Niyi-Awosusi leading up to their talk at this year’s Afrotech Fest.

Niyi-Awosusi’s work at BBC — which aims to be the most accessible news website in the world — comes with two roles. They build article webpages using React, and are an accessibility champion. The latter is a voluntary but official role, probably unique to the BBC, tasked with keeping accessibility at the front of colleagues’ minds.

Accessibility is essential because we are developing software that simply won’t be used by certain demographics.

In the UK alone, eight percent of people still lack digital skills. When essential government processes — like applying for EU settled status post-Brexit which currently requires an Android app — are completely online, these are people not able to access the benefits. These people are excluded from the following:

  1. Managing information: Using a search engine to look for information, finding a website, or downloading and saving a photo found online.
  2. Communicating: Sending a personal message via email or online messaging service or making comments and sharing information online.
  3. Transacting: Buying items or services from a website or buying and installing apps on a device.
  4. Problem-solving: Verifying sources of information online or solving a problem with a device or digital service using online help.
  5. Creating: completing online application forms including personal details or creating something new from existing online images, music or video.

This is the framework the UK Digital Divide is based on. Accordingly, these digitally excluded individuals are missing out on increasing their salary by up to ten percent and are deemed less employable, not saving money as shopping online is 13% cheaper, and they are 40% less able to connect to loved ones. Perhaps most importantly, accessing government services in an analog way mean that it takes on average 30 minutes longer.

It’s estimated at least 90% of jobs will require digital skills soon. The 8% of digitally excluded people are from the disenfranchised groups above. They are the ones with less access to divergent information sources and significantly less able to apply for jobs. This leaves these groups only increasing their digital gap and their opportunities.

“People who often are excluded think that the internet has nothing to offer them. Even if they are elderly or disabled, it’s not the fact that they can’t use the internet, it’s that it has nothing to give them,” Niyi-Awosusi said.

The tech industry has a habit of creating and even promoting tools as too difficult, in a way that further excludes vulnerable groups.

“It’s very scary thinking about the lifetime potential dropping, and it gets harder and harder as you begin to experience disabilities and you age,” they continued.

When people, particularly from excluded communities, do gain access to the internet, they are at a much higher risk of being harassed online or they won’t even gain access to information, like how even G-rated LGBTQ+ information is often filtered out as adult content on sites like YouTube.

These all have to be considered as developers look to rewrite edge cases and review their apps to make sure they aren’t systematically excluding people from the potential of the web. Anyway, with one in six people in the UK living with a disability, that population isn’t really an edge case, is it?

Free Accessibility Tooling Mentioned:

In this edition:

1:43: So, you work at the BBC. How does that fit into the greater network of inclusion?
3:34: Who is being systematically, digitally excluded from the promise of an open Internet?
5:54: Dealing with harassment, censorship, LGBTQ issues, and sexism in the media
7:20: What can software engineers do to change this pattern of exclusion that keeps happening?
8:52: What tools can you use to automate this process?
9:43: Is there any advice you would give to people or something to make them remember to factor accessibility into their scripts?

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