Aditi Kant | Director of UX & Research, Digital of Things
Throughout the region digital accessibility is changing year after year. As accessibility gains in popularity, many challenges are brought to light on the existing ‘accessibility condition’ here in the region. Locally, the government has enacted many initiatives to make the UAE as a whole more accessible for all people of all abilities. Despite these initiatives however, people of determination still find that their disability limits their independence. For example, businesses here are slow to develop accessible solutions for digital products – unless there is an organisational mandate. We address what some of the barriers and deterrents are for ‘digital accessibility’ throughout this blog post.
We the people of the UAE
The first deterrent well may be that many of the people who live and reside in the UAE are young expatriates. Statistically, 65.9% of the population are between the age of 25-54 years and 88% of the population are expatriates. This group of people who come to the UAE to work and reside usually do not have limiting disabilities.
Secondly, the UAE does not really have a self-service culture – wherever we go there is someone to help us, whether that be bagging your groceries or even loading them into your car. When filling up petrol there are no ‘self-service’ stations – an attendant will help you. Office assistants make travel bookings, and cleaners wash the dishes at home. The list goes on and on.
Citing Hofstede and his Six Dimensions of Culture, the UAE as a whole has a low rating for individualism and a high rating for uncertainty avoidance. This implies that the UAE, with a score of 25 is a collectivistic society, where people prioritise the good of society over the needs of the individual. This manifests in a close long-term commitment to the member ‘group’, be that a family, extended family, or extended relationships. Loyalty is paramount, and everyone takes responsibility for fellow members of the group.
Countries like the UAE which exhibit high uncertainty avoidance on Hofstede’s scale, usually maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour (rules) and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas (individualism).
All of the above reasons lend credence to a belief that here in the UAE, society is built to take care of the whole and will always be there to do so. For people of determination, and those with accessibility needs this means that there will (most likely) always be helpers available to assist and protect them when needed.
A few years ago, a new initiative was launched in the UAE to rename people with special needs to be called ‘people of determination’ as part of the national strategy for empowering people with disabilities.
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai said, “disability is in fact the inability to make progress and achievements. The achievements that people of determination have made in various spheres over the past years are proof that determination and strong will can do the impossible and encourage people to counter challenges and difficult circumstances while firmly achieving their goals."
There have been a number of changes in laws, policies and attitudes over the past few years towards people of determination with the mission of creating an inclusive, restriction-free society. Various initiatives around Dubai can be seen to assist people of determination, such as the tactile floors at metro stations to assist the visually disabled. There are even separate, dedicated queues at the airport to help wheelchair-using passengers and dedicated lounges.
How many people of determination are seen independently maneuvering in a supermarket? How many people with a wheelchair are able to drive independently without needing someone to lift them out of the wheelchair and into the driver seat? Despite many legislations to protect their rights and provide them with support, there is still more to be done to empower people of determination and provide them with opportunities for self-mobility.
The contrast between mindsets and actions of catering for people of determination can also be seen throughout the digital world. Having worked with the Emirates brand across a multitude of digital products, I can safely say that a lot of time and energy is invested in ensuring websites meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and its AA compliance rating. However, this is mostly to appease various international agencies (such as those in the US) who require compliance.
I recently reviewed some of the Dubai governments websites, especially the pages where people of determination would go to find information. What I found was that many of them had multiple compliance issues. Using the accessibility app “Wave”, which is an evaluation tool that helps developers make their web content more accessible to people of determination, I analysed various web content for compliance issues. Below are some of the screenshots of my investigation.
As you can see, many of these issues shown above can be easily solved, such as providing the missing website links, or providing alternate text for images. However, I wonder how many UAE residents who have cognitive or physical disabilities pay their DEWA bills online? Could this be due to the lack of accessibility compliance on websites or apps, or could it be due to lack of awareness, lack of empathy or just lack of real requirement?
Comparing the RTA website from 2019 until today, it can be seen that many steps have been taken to address & fix various accessibility concerns. The three main accessibility issues that were seen previously have been rectified, and the website is looking to be more accessible for those with disabilities. It's nice to see that steps towards accessibility are being taken as we move into 2020.
I’ve listed reasons below as to why organisations here might be slow to uphold the WCAG guidelines for compliance. Please note, the reasons listed here are not research-based. These are my opinions only.
There could be such a low, or no, number of users that require compliance-based websites. Currently, there is very little data on how people of determination shop online or use various websites and apps. It could very well be that those who go to souq.com or noon.com do not have special requirements for use.
Businesses do not yet see the need for catering to this group of users. Personally, I have not come across an organisation who has a user group or persona with special requirements. Is it worth the investment from the business to design & code an app or website that will not even be used by 1% of the total user base?
Currently in the UAE no mandates or rules exist from the government requiring websites to accommodate for people of determination. In the US for example, Section 508 exists and in the UK, there is Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
The mindset throughout the UAE is to seek assistance and get help when needed, instead of trying to complete tasks on your own.
In conclusion, it can be seen that in the UAE we still have quite a way to go in creating accessible digital solutions for people of determination. Even though there has been a series of initiatives to help develop and empower those with special needs, improvements in digital solutions are still needed. Research is still needed in order to understand the value of accommodating for those with special needs, and the value it will bring to every single person throughout the UAE.