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Anna Pethig is the Manager, Web and Publications at the Ministry of Health. She is guest blogging on the Web Toolkit to share her experience trying to ensure the Ministry of Health's main website, www.health.govt.nz, meets the needs of the disabled consumers who use it.

It’s one thing to be sitting at work trying to get your website to comply with a pile of standards and best practices. It’s another to be standing in front of a group of people who can’t access your content because your website doesn’t comply with those standards and practices. Meeting the Web Standards never seemed more important than when we recently spoke with the Disability Consumers Consortium.

Disability Consumers Consortium

The Consortium involves people with a wide range of different disabilities. They provide input and advice to the Ministry of Health’s Disability Support Services on its planning, policy and service development. For the Ministry of Health—and many other government departments—these people represent some of our key audiences.

Our web team had sought their input when we were redeveloping the Ministry of Health website, www.health.govt.nz.

Suggested Improvements

Improvements the Consortium wanted to see at that time were (unsurprisingly) in line with the Web Standards: getting more content onto the page, rather than in PDFs; providing an easy-to-find ‘Enlarge Font’ option; using promotion blocks to access pages of interest; and providing text descriptions of images, tables and graphs. The Consortium was also very keen on having a high-contrast version of the site which assists people with low vision.

With the new website up and running for nearly a year, we went to find out how it is working for the Consortium and how we can continue to improve it for the users they represent.

What We Learned

Video and Captions

Some important feedback was around the power of video and the use of captions. There was general agreement that video works very well for many people with disabilities, but that captioning is essential for people who are Deaf. So, my government colleagues, next time you are asked to publish a video, be convincing when you tell your client that it won’t go up without the words.

Social Media

Facebook is being used by communities represented by the Consortium. The video aspect makes it particularly popular within the Deaf community. There was wide support for the Ministry using Facebook for our target audiences. They see it as a way they can get their communications from us in one place—but we need to be posting really relevant and well-targeted information.

Twitter—what’s that? Not the way these audiences want to interact with government.

Plain English

Plain English—wonderful! But we also need to provide pictorial or simplified versions, too, for people who have a learning or intellectual disability, low literacy, and for many in the Deaf community for whom English is a second language. Simplified versions are also useful for people who don’t want to read screeds (that would be everyone!).

Sign Language

Providing content in sign language—more of this please. New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is one of our three official languages, and we should be providing sign language messaging on our websites, particularly in emergency situations.

Access to Computers

Lastly (and not the sort of news that any comms team likes to hear these days, but important nonetheless) there was the reminder that many people with disabilities have no access to computers, and we need to think of other ways to communicate with them.

Take Action

As I said at the start, there’s nothing more humbling than talking to your users and finding out what it’s like for them to be on your website. All government web teams and their content owners should find opportunities to get alongside their users, particularly people who can represent their target audience groups, to hear what they have to say. Remember, it’s not personal and it’s just feedback. You can decide whether and how you use it. But you will learn a lot and maybe, like for us, it will help make the Web Standards come to life.

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