Government Communications Service
Rising to the accessibility challenge
Blog posted by: Louise Harris, Creative and Channels Team Leader at GDS, 28 July 2020.
As a profession, we like to challenge ourselves to do things differently. It’s part of what makes the Government Communication Service (GCS) great, and a big part of what attracted me to join the civil service in May of this year.
Since joining, I’ve found myself surrounded by a passionate bunch of individuals from the Government Digital Service (GDS), Government Equalities Office (GEO), Cabinet Office, Number 10 and GCS who share the common goal of helping the profession to make our work more inclusive and accessible.
Important conversations about accessibility – particularly in the field of digital communication – are happening across the profession. And we want you to be a part of them.
Why accessibility is important
1 in 5 people have an illness, condition or disability that can affect their ability to access or understand a message. That figure has pretty big implications for government communicators, so let’s explore it together.
According to the ONS, the UK is home to approximately 66.79 million people. Each of these people has a relationship with the government, and will be the target for at least one official message or campaign. Statistically-speaking, that means there are at least 13 million people that we need to communicate with, who will have accessibility needs that are as unique as they are.
If we adopt a one size fits all approach that doesn’t build accessibility into our work, we risk cutting millions of people out of important conversations about their lives, livelihoods and more.
Making social media more accessible
One of the things we’re thinking hard about is how to improve the accessibility of social media campaigns. Let’s consider how the 1 in 5 statistic applies to some of the channels you’re probably using, or have used, as part of your digital or campaign strategy.
Assuming there are 44.84 million UK Facebook users, approximately 8.9 million of them will have a health condition that affects how they communicate or access information. So will 4.9 million of the UK’s 24.46 million Instagram users. And over 3.5 million of the UK’s 17.75 million Twitter users.
We know social media is an important way for citizens and government to interact with one another, but as GDS’ Head of Accessibility Richard Morton explains – we’re not always using it in the most inclusive way:
“Images are being posted with missing or incomplete alternative text, which creates a barrier to people with visual impairments. Videos often have captions but no voiceover – that helps someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, but again not anyone who can’t read the text.”
Meeting user needs
Another of my colleagues at GDS, Senior Content Designer Marian Foley shared her perspective on what effect this can have:
“For context, I’m visually impaired and use magnification and colour customisation (dark mode and altered browser colours) rather than screen reading software. Top annoyance? There would be posts with coloured backgrounds that mean there’s a terrible level of colour contrast against the text colour, and I can’t read them.
“Beyond that it’s images with text in that’s too small to read, but goes fuzzy or pixelated when I zoom in; hashtags that look like one long word; emojis instead of words – so I have to work out what the tiny picture is, and screen shots that aren’t cropped, so the image is smaller than it needs to be.
“It could be so different! I’d like to see more people taking steps to improve the user experience by doing things like using CamelCase to capitalise each individual word in a hashtag so screen reading software reads them correctly. For example, if you don’t put capitals in it, #superbowl might be read as #SuperbOwl instead of #SuperBowl.
“And please, don’t overuse emojis because screen reading software will read them all out. If you put a hand clap emoji between words in a post like the example shown below, screen reader users will hear something like: ‘clapping hands emojis clapping hands are clapping hands not clapping hands punctuation clapping hands’.”
Emojis are not punctuation, so avoid using them for that reason
Setting the standard
It’s not just a challenge facing government communicators. There are plenty of examples online of people calling out those who are getting it wrong. But isn’t it for us, as professional communicators and civil servants, to set the standard?
Working with Marian, Richard and many more colleagues from across government, in recent weeks we put together this handy guide to planning, creating and publishing accessible social media campaigns. I hope you’ll give it a read and consider sharing it with your colleagues.
I may be an accessibility advocate, but I’m a busy government communicator too. I understand that accessibility can feel challenging (overwhelming even) – it’s a common misconception that it’s time-consuming and complicated to achieve.
However, we designed the guide to be quick and simple to adopt. You don’t need lots of training, time or expensive tools to start putting it into practice: you just need the will. I promise that once you get started, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly some of this thinking becomes second nature.
What’s already happening across government
That’s enough from me. Let’s hear now from colleagues who have already embarked on the accessibility journey, and learn more about the exciting work that’s happening across government.
Matt Clarke, Head of Digital at the Ministry of Defence (MOD) is taking practical steps to embed accessibility awareness into the team’s working culture:
“Accessibility is especially important for the MOD given our Veteran community and the wide range of stakeholders we serve. To help improve the accessibility of our content, we’ve amended our daily content meetings to focus in this area by highlighting how we can ensure each individual piece of planned content is as accessible as possible. We’ve also created a social media accessibility guide for all communicators within defence, highlighting the differences between content types and how they might prevent certain groups from being able to engage with our content.”
Vanessa Schneider, a Senior Community and Channels Manager at GDS, keeps accessibility front of mind to make sure she’s doing a great job for citizens with different needs:
“We know that people with a high literacy level can sometimes struggle to understand government messages, but did you know that as many as 1 in 5 adults will have low levels of literacy either at, or below, Level 1? To set that in context, adults with literacy skills below Level 1 may not be able to follow bus timetables or understand their payslip.
“I keep those statistics in mind when developing social content for the channels I manage. It means I avoid jargon, keep sentence structures short and think hard about how to break down complex ideas into simpler messages for my audience.”
Libby Daniels, Campaigns and Communications Manager at the Government Equalities Office, is committed to helping us understand our duty as communicators:
“The legislation that governs this area of work is the Public Sector Equality Duty, a part of the Equality Act 2010 (section 149) that requires all public bodies to consider the effects of their work on those with protected characteristics (for example their race, nationality or sexual orientation) and ensure any proposed approach is not discriminatory. The duty to make reasonable adjustments (Section 20) goes further, requiring positive steps to ensure those that have protected characteristics are not put at a disadvantage. Practically, this means it is our legal duty to consider and take action to ensure accessibility in our communications.”
Creative Content Producer Charlotte Downs from GDS, thinks accessible design is at the heart of good design:
“I believe good design is simple, intuitive, and usable by the audience it is intended for. Learning about accessibility has helped me acquire techniques and skills that make my work better. Now more than ever, I rely on testing, collaboration and research to inform my design. I can now better meet the needs of my audience, and I’m challenged to be more creative. For members of the government Design Community, I highly recommend taking the time to upskill in accessibility.”
Katie Herbert, Digital Engagement Manager at the Department of Health and Social Care encourages you to take a ‘whole post’ approach:
“As the Department for Health and Social Care, we have a duty to explain key health messages to the public, it’s clear this has increased even more so with the coronavirus pandemic. As a team we are constantly learning about how to make our social media content more accessible. As basic steps we add alt text to static images, subtitle our video content and use a contrast checker on the colour design of our content. As a general rule we use a ‘whole post’ approach, taking into account post copy, asset, alt text, and so on. This means that all users are able to understand the message of our posts even if some elements are not yet fully accessible.”
Ways to get involved
If you’re interested in learning more about accessible communications, there’s lots of support available from GCS. If there’s something you or your team is particularly keen to know more about, that’s not covered already – get in touch to let GCS know.
And if you’ve got a great example of accessibility in action – share it! We’d love to see examples of your work so we can champion that across the profession and inspire others to get involved.
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