Water restrictions and content accessibility. A mild rant.

November 18, 2019

Last Wednesday, I spent the day learning content design for accessibility from Sarah Richards and Lizzie Bruce from Content Design London.

[Before you stop reading, let’s all remember that accessibility is for everyone]

I had done the two day design course earlier this year. I always try to keep accessibility in mind when I write.

What would I learn?

So much.

But there was one thing that, already, has changed the way I think about what I do.

Sarah started by clearing up terminology. You might know that here in Australia we are encouraged to use ‘person first’ language around disability. We say ‘a person with disability’ not ‘a disabled person’.

We use language to make sure the person is first, not their difference.

But Sarah made it very clear that they would be using ‘disabled person’. Why?

Sometimes our choices disable people.

Think about that for a second.

As people who serve clients and create stuff on the internet it’s our choices that might disable people.

Talk about a major change in perspective.

Now a content designer doesn’t move without evidence, so we can assume she’s got the goods to back this up. This decision isn’t taken lightly, and has come from a tonne of consultation with European peak bodies in the disability sector.

So with that in the back of my head all day, we got to a discussion of poverty as a disabling factor.

I once worked with an organisation rolling out an intranet to staff in remote NSW. Their teams had no internet access outside work. Most had never turned on a computer, let alone owned one. Sitting at home with unlimited wifi and a million connected devices, it can be very easy to forget that you don’t have to move very far to find a home without it.

And this turned my mind to something that’s been nagging at me, but I couldn’t quite articulate why.

Well, I think I’ve found the words (a bit of a rant ahead).

You all know I’m in Dubbo. It’s become the poster-child for water restrictions. Should we have them? Should we not? Are we doing enough? Who knows?

Not the residents, that’s for sure.

Since the first restrictions were announced, I haven’t once seen a mail drop.

Paper costs money. It's bad for the environment. I get it.

But, I’ve got my information on restrictions from:

  • A large coloured table that I can download as a pdf from the council website (play along, visit the Drought Hub)
  • Headlines in the local paper that I read on Facebook (the local paper is paywalled, and I don’t subscribe).
  • Status updates from the council on Facebook.
  • Live streamed council meetings on Facebook and the website (ok, I don’t watch them, I sometimes read the comments for lols).
  • Comments from the mayor, former mayor and local members on...you guessed it, Facebook.

This isn’t to bash council (ok, maybe a little, it’s a sport in regional towns) but it is a good case study to look at and ask, “can we do better?”

So what could they have done?

Can the content be presented on the website outside the table?

There are a few lines on the most controversial restrictions, but to understand anything else you need to download the pdf. Yes, this means more work for council. But I have no doubt that it could be argued that people didn’t abide by the restrictions because they couldn’t access or didn’t understand them. There is international precedent for website owners being sued for their site being too difficult to use, navigate and read.

The table format, colours and file format are all difficult for people with sight issues, including those using screen readers, and for people with mobility issues, who can’t use a mouse.

Are the council meetings later transcribed? Are there captions? A sign interpreter at meetings?

We can’t expect that all things be perfect at all times, and there are lots of things here that will be difficult. Yes, meetings have public minutes, but minutes don’t include any of the conversation. They don’t include much plain, understandable English.

Is all the unique and important information shared with the local paper also easy to find somewhere that isn’t behind a paywall?

I don’t think that every media release in the world needs to be published (because honestly no one cares). But I’ve found that a lot of data from multiple sourced seems to be shared on Facebook, including in the comments. It’s interesting stuff - what’s the total water allocation, what do we take from the river and the bore. Not something that everyone will want to know, but useful for the general democratic process.

And the big one...how do you learn anything about water restrictions without the internet?

(Or sight? Do people who read braille not use water?)

Could you just print it out and drop it in everyone’s mail box in a size and colour that is legible?

Could you hand it out at the front of every grocery store in town for a few days a week? Do we need a town cryer?

If you think of more, agree or not, let me know! I'm up for a discussion on this one (and any email to be honest).

Clearly, these aren’t all going to be achievable. They involve cash and people and time. We can’t be so prescriptive to assume everything is going to be perfect all the time.

But we still need to try.

So how do we do better?

Look for disabling moments in your audience’s journey.

And remember my article from two week’s ago - disability sits a spectrum. Lack of access might look like no devices or limited data in one home or, it might look like a dodgy internet connection, travelling OS and only having hotel wifi access, or experiencing frequent poor service (holla to all my Sky Muster users) on another.

What decisions are you making that could disable your audience?

p.s. The rantiest part of the rant. I want to acknowledge that there are other things that make water access and restriction inequitable.

Having the flexibility to be home at specific times and having time to water. Being able to afford fancy watering systems (in my Dad’s words, 'anyone with money hasn’t had to do a thing and here you are bucketing water from your shower and sink for hours each week' - and I am bloody privileged). You have to know how to save and use grey water. You need to be able to afford the water to manage gardens and washing in the first place.

All this to say, as with everything in life, it’s complicated. Having opinions is complicated and hard. So let’s just treat opinions with some kindness because no one is perfect yeah?

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