Accessing all areas

the time to ensure your intranet system is accessible to all your staff could
save you money and reduce the risk of legal action, as Dean Russell discovers

Many companies have intranet systems in place. Their usual role is as
primary resource centres containing key information relating to employees’
daily activities. Often, the intranet becomes a fundamental part of employees’
working lives, reducing the need for the paper-based office and helping to
ensure optimum productivity and efficiency.

If the intranet is inaccessible to an employee because of a disability or
factors related to their age, it is possible the company will be breaking
present anti-discrimination laws or codes of practice. It is the responsibility
of HR departments to ensure such discrimination does not take place.

Keeping in compliance

A variety of issues are covered by the umbrella term ‘disability’, which
highlights that an accessible intranet must satisfy a range of criteria to
fulfil everyone’s needs. Often the issues can seem conflicting. Whereas a blind
employee would rely on text-based information to enable a screen reader to
speak the screen content, a dyslexic user will require strong imagery without
reliance on text. Seemingly contradictory, these two issues can be resolved by
best practice coding. In this case, alternative text would be required for all
images and animations, which will be read aloud by the screen reader, allowing
strong imagery and text information for both users. Furthermore, incorporating
alternative text enables users with personal digital assistants (PDAs), low
bandwidths, text-based browsers and other visual impairments to access

Key issues to consider are how users with various disabilities will access
the information. For example, a person who is deaf will not be able to hear
audio content; a colour blind user will be unable to perceive certain colour
combinations; an employee suffering from repetitive strain injury may be unable
to use a mouse; and a user with low vision won’t necessarily be able to read
the text content without increasing the font size.

Ultimately, the intranet should not rely on a single method for information
access or navigation. Assuming all users have the same ‘abilities’ will
ultimately lead to problems. To try one simple example, attempt to navigate
through the company intranet using just the keyboard. Can you get to all the
documents and pages quickly and easily?

The older generation of users

For older employees, an accessible intranet system must become more flexible
and welcoming to natural age-related changes we all face. As we grow older, it
is common that our quality of eyesight (including colour perception) will
decrease, along with hearing, physical mobility, memory and often confidence
with new technologies. So, increased accessibility is valuable in reducing the
fears and stresses older workers may encounter, along with the physical use of
the applications.

With the intensified drive towards recruiting/retaining older employees –
due to the obvious experience, loyalty and performance benefits – then accessibility
is crucial. Furthermore, legislation such as the US Age Discrimination in
Employment Act (ADEA) and the forthcoming EU Equal Treatment Directive means
organisations need to be aware of possible routes of discrimination, and need
to ensure the intranet is not playing a part in this.

To aid developers with the multitude of issues facing accessible interfaces,
the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created a set of accessibility guidelines.
These identify priority points for enabling all users to access a website, and
therefore, an intranet system.

Many governments quote these guidelines worldwide. This is due to the
increased fear of a digital divide, which has seen an increase in legislation
and guidance across all continents including countries such as the US,
Australia, Canada, Japan and all European Union Member States.

How should HR react to this information?

The issues need to be raised with relevant departments. Mentioning the W3C
guidelines should give a quick clue to whether or not they are aware of
accessibility issues at all. If specific measures are not already in place, HR
must champion them internally and at boardroom level.

In many cases, modernising the intranet may be as simple as incorporating
the W3C guidelines into present page templates. These can be incorporated over
a defined period or, if a new intranet is being planned, implemented into the
new system – but HR must ensure the IT department and project team are fully
aware that the organisation may be at risk of discriminating against present or
future employees if the intranet remains inaccessible.

It is possible HR will encounter a general perception that accessibility is
for the ‘few’. However, developing a fully-accessible intranet system greatly
enhances the workplace environment for all employees. Accessibility includes
many aspects based upon good design and usability, vastly increasing
efficiency, reducing frustration and increasing access to a multitude of platforms,
from future handheld devices to legacy web browsers.

For HR, accessibility should not be seen as just an IT department issue.
Investigating your organisation’s accessibility policies is crucial, and in the
process you will help increase efficiency, save costs and reduce the risk of
legal action.

About the author

Dean Russell is a consultant and accessibility expert with Bluewave, a
global online solutions provider

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