Worcestershire County Council is claiming significant progress in improving the accessibility of its online documents due to the increasing use of its SCULPT tool.
The official at the heart of the initiative has flagged up its availability, a year after making it available to the council’s own staff through its intranet, and six months after providing a public facing tool through its website.
Digital designer Helen Wilson, who led its development, says the measurements of documents’ accessibility through the Siteimprove dashboard have risen from around 70% to over 80% since SCULPT was launched.
Its name is an acronym of the six principles on which it has been developed: structure of a document through using inbuilt headings and styles; colour and contrast; use of images; links and hyperlinks; plain English; and tables.
“Applying the principles of SCULPT when you create a document can help make it accessible,” she says. “It’s very much aimed at the workforce in terms of document creation, but those six things are relevant to whatever you make, be it a web page, a PowerPoint or designing a system. All those things are relevant throughout.
“We gave it a brand identity so people connected with accessibility, as we had found the word put them off. There was a lot of misunderstanding of it, and people had a preconceived idea it was complicated, something IT did and nothing to do with them.
“Our aim is to get the workforce more aware. It’s about inclusive practice, whether they put it on a website or in an email.”
She adds that Worcestershire’s web team is responsible for the HTML content on the web, and that the council is attempting to increase in the amount of content in this format. But it recognises that a lot of material will still be published and exchanged as Word and PDF documents and wants to ensure these are accessible to everyone.
The effort to produce SCULPT began in 2018, with a recognition that the council was very “document heavy” and that it needed to change its culture so all employees understood the importance of producing accessible material. Wilson says it ran some workshops to establish what staff did and did not know, and learned that it was common for them to go to Google for anything on accessibility, where the material was often buried under other issues and reinforced the perception that is was complicated.
“We needed to work out the most important stuff,” she says. “We had a fantastic lady who uses a screen reader herself, and went through everything that caused a problem.
“From that, with a little creative thought, we came up with SCULPT as a ‘What do I need to do?’ In terms of documents it can make people aware of basic practice on accessibility.”
It includes detailed guidance on meeting each of the six principles, with a collection of downloadable resources and all licensed under Creative Commons.
There has been considerable interest from other organisations. Wilson says SCULPT has been picked up by other local authorities and public sector IT association Socitm, and she has been asked to make presentations at events such as the Cross Government Accessibility Meetup and Jisc Digifest. In addition, it was highlighted by the Government Digital Service as part of the Global Accessiblity Awareness Day in May.
She says there has been a very positive response and that the Worcestershire team is aiming to raise its profile to encourage others to use it. At it is concentrating on how the council’s staff use SCULPT, efforts to spread the word more widely have been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic; but there are plans to share case studies and name a few ‘SCULPT champions’ willing to promote its use.
This can go beyond local government into education, as teachers are responsible for their own content in virtual learning and need to know how to create accessible material. It has been picked up by Jisc, the membership organisation for digital in higher education, for its own guidance.
Wilson says the tool can be amended as more feedback comes in, and that she hopes organisations that use it in developing their own resources will be ready to share those freely with their communities.
She also emphasises that the six principles are the most important element.
“It would be fantastic if something like this could be embedded as the six things to remember for accessibility,” she says. “That’s the bigger ambition with us.
“It is very early days, but the more people who use it the better.”