HRC warns govt on technology accessibility

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The Australian Government must reform discrimination laws, amend its procurement rules and commit to standards to make technology more accessible to people with a disability, the Australian Human Rights Commission has warned.

Its Human Technology Report, tabled to Parliament on Thursday after a three-year investigation of emerging technology, found poorly designed technology was excluding people with a disability, and procurement policies and compliance with standards were lacking in Australia.

Advocates have welcomed the findings, saying governments have lost momentum on digital accessibility in recent years and are struggling to lead by example compared with other countries.

The report recommended the federal government lead change through law reform, monitored accessibility compliance and by favouring the procurement of technology and entities that are.

Doing so would bring Australia further in line with its international commitments on protecting the rights of people with a disability, according to the report.

Canberra Parliament House
The Australian Government needs to make law and policy changes to drive digital accessibility, a Human Rights report has found.

“There’s massive digital transformation happening. No-one should be left behind in that process, especially people with a disability,” Australian Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow told InnovationAus.

“That’s why we’re calling for clear regulation and good leadership. Whenever the digital world is not accessible it shuts people with disability out in the same way that a poorly designed bus or building prevents people with a physical disability from participating.”

While Australia is a signatory to the international human rights convention regarding people with a disability, federal, state and territory governments are yet to fully incorporate it in their laws or the National Disability Strategy — a delay the UN has expressed concern with.

Australia also lacks federal whole of government agreements to use technology that complies with basic standards like WCAG 2.1. and Australia’s own 2016 accessibility standard for technology procurement.

While Commonwealth departments are “strongly encouraged” to meet accessibility standards and are legally required to ensure their service is usable and accessible to people with disabilities, compliance is not regularly published.

The AHRC recommended implementing whole of government agreements to comply with the two technology standards, including providing publicly available information on agency compliance and a central line agency and Minister to take responsibility.

Australian governments should further promote accessible technology themselves by adding requirements to their procurement rules and favouring entities that uphold accessibility standards themselves, the report recommended.

“Procurements is probably one of the biggest levers that government have to influence accessibility across the Australian marketplace,” said Stewart Hay, founder of Australian accessibility agency Intopia.

“[Governments] have got that ability to put the pressure back on to these organisations and say ‘hey, if we’re going to buy your technology for 20,000, plus employees, you’ve got to make it accessible for us,'” he told InnovationAus.

Mr Hay welcomed the AHRC report but said its recommendations on technology accessibility and procurements lacked some of the “teeth” and financial incentives that had helped drive adoption and awareness overseas.

“That’s something that’s needed in the accessibility space because most organisations aren’t being made aware of the importance of accessibility.”

He also questioned whether Australian governments would have the appetite to drive the widespread changes recommended in the report. Particularly at the federal level where some agencies have been “ignoring” accessibility and the agency charged with leading it, the Digital Transformation Agency, had lost momentum, according to Mr Hay.

The AHRC also calls for more fundamental reform to disability law, including but not limited to reforms to the Disability Discrimination Act.

In consulting for the report, the Commission heard the current complaint system creates a heavy burden on the disability sector, with financially outmatched individuals often left to try and resolve systematic disability discrimination problems like inaccessible technology.

The report recommends the Attorney General consult widely to reform the Disability Discrimination Act to include a Digital Communication Technology Standard and consider further reforms to implement the full range of accessibility obligations for digital technology.

Gisele Mesnage, a blind woman who successfully sued Coles over its online shopping website in 2014, has also welcomed the report’s recommendations, including the proposed technology standard for the Disability Discrimination Act.

“The surge of uptake of communications technologies triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic makes the adoption of this proposed standard an imperative to ensure the inclusion of people with disability in the shift to remote working, remote learning and other forms of remote activities as the new normal of our daily life,” she told InnovationAus.

Ms Mesnage now runs the Digital Gap Initiative (DGI), a not for profit advocacy organisation that contributed to the AHRC report.

“DGI welcomes the report’s emphasis on reforms to Australia’s legal and policy frameworks around new and emerging technologies in a human right context.”

Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, Ed Santow, said there had been progress on accessibility technology in Australia but it needed to be included earlier in the design phase.

“It’s about bringing to the earliest stages of research and development the importance of being inclusive,” Mr Santow told InnovationAus.

“That leads to better products and services, and it’s much cheaper than having to retrofit a product that is poorly designed with features to make them available to people with a disability.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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