DICTU: "We now look at accessibility through a different lens"

DICTU is one of the major service providers in the field of ICT within the Dutch government. Other organizations within the government enlist the services of DICTU for various ICT matters. DICTU consists of different departments, including Web & App Services. This department develops and manages websites and apps for the Dutch government. Gerbrant van den Hengel, as a product owner, shares responsibility for the development of various apps at DICTU. The connection with Abra was established a few years ago.

The government aims to set a positive example in the field of digital accessibility. The new law mandates accessibility for government institutions. DICTU conducted early research into the precise criteria for accessibility and concluded that more specialized knowledge was needed to elevate accessibility to a higher level. Gerbrant mentioned, "We couldn't wait to see what others were doing; the government had to set a good example. There was a lack of specialized knowledge, and it was clear that all parties needed to become more aware of accessibility. Through connections, we got in touch with Paul van Workum from Abra and the Appt Foundation. Our collaboration started with a kick-off training for testers, developers, and product owners."

Kick-off training

During the kick-off training, at the beginning of the Covid-period, testers, product owners, and developers were introduced to accessibility and everything associated with it. This improved internal knowledge. It was enlightening to work with concrete examples of how and which functions are used, such as the screen reader. After the kick-off training, it became clear that accessibility is not optional. The training also highlights the specialized knowledge required to integrate digital accessibility from the outset.

Following the kick-off training, DICTU mapped out existing apps. "We didn't tackle all apps at once. The preparatory phase took quite some time, and whenever a new app was developed, we naturally incorporated accessibility right away. For existing apps, accessibility was addressed when maintenance or revision was due. This allowed us to manage budgets wisely."

On-demand supervision

In the period following the kick-off training, various apps were addressed, and UX designers and testers within DICTU worked on creating accessible apps. DICTU took advantage of the option to have Abra provide on-demand oversight during the development of new apps and the revision of existing ones. Whenever there was a question about the design, a piece of functionality, or when an app was ready for evaluation, Abra was notified, and Paul van Workum screened it. "You might receive feedback in the form of a video, where Paul directly discusses what he sees and suggests improvements. It's a quick and straightforward way to make significant improvements with minimal interventions. It worked well for us. Not an extensive report for each app, but concise and practical improvement points. Because you immediately see how it can be better, the organization learns quickly." Abra refers to this as the Quick-scan.

The ongoing collaboration between DICTU and Abra also proceeded smoothly. "To demonstrate that an app is accessible, a declaration must be created, which happens in the Logius register. We have these comprehensive examinations conducted by an independent party, such as Abra. Such an independent post-development review is very useful for the developer and the client. It shows that you take transparency and accessibility seriously. Additionally, you receive steps for the future with tips and improvement points to become even more accessible. Ultimately, all apps should be optimally accessible."

Continuous process

In the near future, the collaboration will persist. DICTU has already accumulated a lot of knowledge and experience, but it is an ongoing process. "Compared to a few years ago, we now have a much better understanding of what to focus on and how to design effectively. Our clients are also much more aware of the necessity of digital accessibility. When we now receive a task to guide a process or product, the client themselves requests an accessible app. Digital accessibility, however, is more than just adjusting color contrast and font size – these are relatively simple design settings. Through intensive collaboration with users with disabilities, we've discovered that there's still much to improve in terms of content. For example, we found that for someone who is blind, it's not automatically clear that a certain text is an example when the screen reader is enabled. This requires thoughtful consideration. Or, for instance, it's very inconvenient for a blind user to have to click three times to reach the next screen when it could be done in one. So, it's not just a matter of design; you also need to be genuinely aware of accessibility when preparing content."

Accessibility is a must

Digital accessibility remains a priority for DICTU in the coming years. "Certainly, we're not there yet. Thanks to the work of the past years, we have built up a lot of knowledge, and awareness is definitely there; we truly view accessibility through a different lens. However, developments do not stand still. Just look at what's happening in the field of AI; that will undoubtedly have implications for accessibility. Digital accessibility is now indispensable. Not only for people with disabilities, by the way: many people, in one way or another, utilize the accessibility options on their phones. So, when you create an accessible app, a lot of people benefit from it."