Making government services accessible
What to do before, during and after you build a digital service, to prevent accessibility barriers and give everyone equitable access, regardless of their abilities or devices they're using. This guide is for anyone who provides or designs Ontario government services.
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Ontario’s accessibility laws are outlined in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
The AODA’s core principles are independence, dignity, integration and equality. This means, all government ministries, agencies and the broader public service, must provide equal and timely access to government services, for everyone, regardless of their individual abilities, devices used or environment.
Building accessible, digital products and services means users can easily get the service and information they need, in a way that works for them.
If you are offering digital products, make sure that:
- everyone across the province, regardless of their abilities, should be able to use it. This is their right under Ontario’s accessibility laws and Human Rights Code.
- it is free of accessibility barriers through careful analysis, research and testing
- it meets Ontario’s standards for building and delivering excellent government services
Definition of a digital service
A service is any activity that helps someone complete a task.
- include information published online, as well as in-person transactions or interactions
- are available using technology that has an internet connection, such as:
- websites and intranets
- mobile applications
- desktop computers
- social media
- cell phones
If you are offering a digital service, it must:
- be tested, to prove that it is accessible. For example, test the service:
- meet the Digital Service Standard, Ontario’s standard for building and delivering accessible products and services.
- follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0, Level AA) on making websites accessible.
Before you create a digital service
As you plan your project, include these points to make sure your product works for people with a range of abilities.
1. Budget and make accessibility a priority
Estimate the time it may take
Including accessibility into your service design requires time and planning. Estimate how many days or hours you need to:
- find or hire an expert that can work with you
- create a process to respond to and complete accessibility requests
- train staff on accessibility requirements (for example, how to use assistive devices to test for website accessibility)
- have an expert review your service for accessibility and develop solutions that resolve barriers
Budget for accessibility
You will likely need extra help to make sure the product or service you’re designing, meets accessibility requirements.
This includes paying for:
- people with a variety of disabilities, to test your service
- assistive technology to test your digital product, such as:
- Jaws (a screen reader)
- ZoomText (a screen magnifier)
- Dragon Naturally Speaking (a speech recognition tool)
- Nvda (a screen reader, free and open source)
- a technical expert (to build your product, add audio descriptions or captions to videos, train staff on how to make documents accessible, for example)
- alternate formats, interpreters or other supports, such as braille, captioning or note-taking, to respond to accessibility requests from your users
2. Work with an accessibility expert
Fixing accessibility issues can be a costly and lengthy process. It’s best to work with an accessibility expert, from the start, to help you work through issues before and after your launch.
Look for staff in your organization who have the experience or expertise to work with you. Reach out to ministry accessibility leads, information technology experts, or staff who have worked on other accessibility projects. If you have more than one, you can form a working group to seek advice and guidance from them throughout your project.
You may need to look for accessibility experts outside of your organization if there are not any staff with that type of experience. You will also have to ensure that you consult with people who have disabilities to provide guidance around accessibility
3. Understand the spectrum of abilities you are designing for
Disabilities can be temporary or situational. For example, a person’s ability can change temporarily, if they have a broken arm or if they’re in a noisy environment which affects their ability to hear or focus.
It’s important you understand the full range of abilities you are designing for, to make sure you don’t create barriers. To help you get started review:
4. Look for accessibility barriers
Accessibility barriers prevent people from using and getting what they need from your service. Whether your service is online or in-person, barriers exist and can be visible or invisible.
Look for potential barriers as you plan your project. To help you get started:
- review the section on barriers in this guide
- ask yourself the questions provided to help you find barriers
- fix your barriers
You must also do user research with people who have both visible and invisible disabilities. This will help you learn what your users need and what barriers could get in their way.
5. Train your team on accessibility
Everyone on your team should complete accessibility training to understand what the law requires.
Your team members may need specific training related to their jobs. For example:
Designers need to:
- understand different types of disabilities
- know how to describe images for users who can't see them
- recognize design choices that make a service more accessible
Developers need to:
- start with the basics of how to make interactions accessible
- then learn how to build accessible applications
Writers must use plain language and make their documents accessible.
Product owners can use the inclusive design cards to help the team throughout the service design process.
6. Offer help up front
Asking for help can be intimidating. Ease the tension for your users by making an active offer – offering help up without being asked.
The general question "How may I help you?" can be a good opening statement in an in-person or phone setting.
For digital services, you can put your contact information and a message telling people they can get information in another format in a highly visible place near the top of the page or at the beginning of the process. This makes it easier for them to find help.
7. You are legally required to accommodate people
When someone says they can’t use your service, you are legally required to help them get what they need.
Don’t wait until you get a request to think about ways to make your service accessible.
Be proactive and prepared to go beyond the Ontario Public Service Accessible Customer Service Policy, to help people get information and services quickly.
If meeting someone’s accommodation request will cause extreme hardship then explain the challenge to the person and work together to find the next best solution.
You can only claim extreme hardship for reasons related to cost, health and safety. You cannot use reasons such as inconvenience to your service or policies and service provider preferences can’t be used to justify extreme hardship, so make sure you are flexible.
Always focus on what the person needs to be able to use the service or application rather than their disability. Learn more about your obligation to accommodate people with disabilities.
8. Give information in an alternate format
Be ready to meet requests for information in other formats. This could mean:
- serving people over the phone or in person
- sharing materials in large print or braille
- providing a sign language interpreter
- having flexible policies and spaces that are easy to adapt to individual needs
Apply accessibility to every phase
- Discovery phase: Define the service’s potential users and how their needs can be met.
- Alpha phase: Decide how to meet the user needs identified during discovery and quickly test different approaches with users before you build a service.
- Beta phase: Use the prototypes created and tested during the alpha phase to build a real service. Build the service quickly in small segments, and test each segment to confirm you're on the right track.
- Live: Launch the service and continuously monitor, research, test and iterate for as long as the service is active.
In every phase you must remove accessibility barriers, test and make sure everyone can use your service.
In discovery, the goal is to understand how people with varying abilities will use your service. The best way to do this is to involve people with disabilities in your user research.
Also, think about the abilities people need to use your service. For example, seeing, hearing, touching, remembering, reading – these are just some of the abilities that we use during our day-to-day activities.
Ask yourself if your service requires people to:
- hear instructions
- speak to a person
- understand English fluently
- read information on a screen
- touch the screen to select options
- see images to understand content
- move in a certain way to use the service
- remember details to complete the service
- know how to use the Internet, computers and smartphones
Services that depend on certain abilities such as sight or movement may be inaccessible for some people. Be sure to:
- look for barriers to accessing your service
- offer help in accessible ways so people can get the assistance if they need
During the alpha phase, make sure that your service meets Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, Level AA. This web standard is required by law. However, if you’d like to go beyond what the law requires, you can follow the WCAG 2.1 design guidelines. This set of principles is a newer version that covers people with:
- cognitive or learning disabilities
- low vision
- mobile devices
Any accessibility barriers you find in the discovery phase, must be fixed before you move on to the beta phase. Take some time to learn how people with disabilities use the web and understand the impact that accessibility has on them. Start thinking about who you can talk to in your organization to help you find solutions.
During the beta phase, make sure to run manual and automated tests to see if what you’ve built meets WCAG 2.0, level AA, as a minimum. This is the web standard that is required by law, under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
To manually test a product, use WCAG 2.0 AA as a checklist and check all the key functionality and content. Automated tests can be run using accessibility testing tools in your browser, on your server or through a number of websites that offer online testing.
This will help you help your fix issues at an earlier stage and avoid more costly or complicated solutions later.
You also need to test your digital service with the most common assistive technologies such as screen readers, speech recognition software and screen magnifiers.
An accessibility advisory team, specialist or a focus group that includes users who have differing abilities can also help you learn whether you are building an accessible service.
Once your service is live
Keep testing and improving your service once it’s launched. To do this:
- check to make sure new features are accessible
- use surveys to get feedback to help improve your service
- continue user research activities with people with disabilities
- watch users, on a regular basis, to see how they complete their tasks using your digital service
Keep offering help up front, either verbally, online or in printed materials and emails, so users can get what they need, and to address accessibility issues as they come up.
How to find accessibility barriers
Barriers are obstacles that make it difficult or even impossible for people to use your service. Some are obvious, like stairs in front of an entrance without a ramp, while others may not be as easy to see.
Accessibility laws and inclusive design practices help remove these barriers so people with disabilities can fully participate in the social, political, economic and cultural aspects of life.
Types of barriers
Look for barriers in every part of your service delivery process – online, in-person or on the phone – because any one of those elements could be inaccessible.
Here are some barriers to keep in mind:
- information and communication barriers that make it hard for people to get, understand, or use information
- technological barriers, or lack of technology that block people from getting or using information
- rules, policies or procedures that prevent people from accessing information, goods or services
- Attitudinal barriers, such as opinions formed without evidence, that negatively affect the way you serve or treat people result in differential or negative behaviour towards others
- architectural design that blocks movement inside or outside of a building or space
Questions to ask to find barriers
Download barrier questions from GitHub
Information and communication barriers
To find information and communication barriers ask if:
- the layout of your online service is clear for people of all abilities
- the font size on desktop, mobile and tablet screens is large enough
- the contrast between the foreground and background is high enough
- forms are labeled, error messages are clear and accessible
- the forms include gender options other than male and female
- information about the user’s gender is really needed to use the service
- content design principles have been used to make information easy to find, read and understand
- information is properly structured for assistive technology by using titles, headings, lists and paragraphs
- the content is accessible using a keyboard alone
- content on your web page or application has been written in plain language
- communication materials such as fact sheets, pamphlets, emails or advertisements meet the user’s language and cultural needs
- the text on your printed materials uses a sans serif font and is large enough to read
- there are other ways to get the service or complete the task, for example by phone, in-person or online
- there is enough accessible phone support for people who need to call for help
- there is a process in place to give someone information in an alternative format
To find technological barriers ask if:
- phones, computers and other devices have a user-friendly design
- people can fix their mistakes easily
- web connectivity is strong enough
- the technology needed to use the service is affordable and accessible
- information about the service is available in several formats
- users need to have technical skills to feel comfortable using the service
- the user must have full vision, hearing or be able to use a mouse to use and understand the website, service or content
Policy and procedural barriers
To find policy and procedural barriers ask if:
- affected communities or groups were consulted before the policies or procedures were developed
- the service allows people with disabilities to get help from their support person
- accommodation options are offered upfront
- people with disabilities have equitable access to information, services, goods
- affected communities or groups were sufficiently consulted before you began developing the policies
- the policies allow for guide dogs
- enough time is given to submit the information needed to access the service
- there are processes in place to report, prevent, and address discrimination and harassment
- process for people to identify barriers to using the service
To find potential attitudinal barriers, ask if:
- your service only works for users with specific abilities (for example, hearing, sight or speech)
- there are incidents of discrimination based on ableism, age, race, gender or other human rights code grounds
- parts of your service delivery process – online, in-person or phone – exclude people with disabilities
- your service follows inclusive design practices
Aspects of your digital service may still be delivered in person (for example, at a kiosk or in a building). To identify physical barriers, find out if:
- there are elevators, ramps and washrooms for people with mobility needs
- hallways and ramps are wide enough to allow people to move freely
- the doors have an automatic opener
- pathways and entrances are cleared of snow and ice
- locations are accessible by public transit
- the lighting in the space is bright or dim enough
If you find accessibility barriers
Solutions will vary depending on the type of accessibility issue that’s been identified. Some solutions are simple, for example adding alt text to an image. Others are more complex and may require technical expertise.
Work with an accessibility expert to get to the root cause of the problem, review and fix your service. Make sure to test your fixes with users with disabilities.
You can also make sure your vendors, staff and service providers learn:
- how to interact with persons with disabilities
- what is required under accessibility law
- how to prevent and address discrimination and harassment
- about hidden biases by taking a test
Do user research with people with disabilities
- create accessible solutions from the start
- learn about real accessibility issues and broaden your perspective
- understand how your digital service works with assistive technology
Plan user research sessions
Think about what you need to do before, during and after your user research session to make sure it’s accessible and inclusive. People with disabilities may need accommodation to take part, so ask them what they need in advance and then make the arrangements. You’ll learn more if people are comfortable and able to fully participate.
Before the session:
- ask participants if they need accommodations to take part, and be ready to support individual requests, devices and software
- make sure the venue has accessible entrances, washrooms and parking
- make sure the path to the session is free of obstacles like snow on the accessibility ramp or boxes in the hallway
- give clear directions to the meeting space and/or meet the participant at a designated area
- share information about your session in a variety of formats such as websites, newsletters and emails
- make sure all session materials including presentations are checked for accessibility and offered in advance
- work with accessibility experts and people with different abilities and backgrounds to develop session questions that represent diverse perspectives
During the session:
- reserve seating for participants who may need space for their mobility device or a service animal
- keep copies of materials on hand with some in large print format
- look for emotional cues and body language to indicate whether the individual is having a negative or a positive reaction during testing
- ask participants how they feel throughout the testing process
- Let participants set the pace and offer to extend the time so they can complete a task or answer questions
After the session:
- thank participants for their time and input
- send a follow-up survey to find out how to improve future research sessions. Find out:
- what worked
- what didn’t work
- what could be improved
- were accommodation needs met
- was the content accessible
- were there barriers
- share the survey results with your team and other staff and apply lessons learned into the planning phase for next time
Interacting with persons with disabilities
- face and speak directly to the person with a disability, not to their interpreter or their support person
- ask the person their name and find out what they liked to be called so you know how to address them
- don’t make assumptions about what the person needs, ask them what they need and how you can help
- be patient and allow enough time for people to understand and respond
- listen carefully to find the best way to communicate and follow any instructions a person may give to help
- if you aren’t sure what was said, ask for clarification or ask them to tell you again