If as a voter you find reading and comparing the manifestos of political candidates to be a frustrating, uninspiring experience, spare a thought for a visually challenged person trying to wade through the same information.
They rely on screen readers to ‘view’ the internet by vocalizing the content. The recent Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly Election highlighted the major challenges that users face. The software is unable to read image files. Yet up to now, the electoral system has required that every political candidate publish his or her campaign policy in an image PDF file. That has meant at least 310,000 people have been unable to access adequate information on the people they are supposed to vote for.
To fix this problem, Dentsu and Yahoo Japan recently worked together to develop a microsite using only text, HTML and CSS files, presenting all official information in a user-friendly way for the visually challenged. As well as being easy to use by the main target audience, the initiative also served as a clever way to make sighted people aware of the problems blind people face on a daily basis when trying to access content.
The design features black text on a black background, making it initially impossible for sighted people to access any information, thus giving a sense of what it can be like for their non-seeing counterparts. Viewers are then invited to “click if its dark” to make the text visible, and are told, “invisible inequality exists in elections”.
The website drew 1.2 million page views within 10 days of launching, and the issue of access to election information by the visually challenged became a major discussion point on social media. As a result, all Japan’s major political parties have promised to work to make election information universally accessible.
Three Dentsu creative directors led the project: Akira Suzuki, Togo Kida and Kazuyoshi Ochi. To understand things from a blind person’s point of view, they worked with Dialogue in the Dark, which aims to change people’s mindsets on disability by having them experience life in total darkness.
The experience was revealing. One blind Dialogue attendant told Kida that they felt treated almost as a second-class citizen by politicians who unwittingly obstruct aids for the visually impaired on the street when delivering their speeches, and by the electoral system that fails to take into account their needs.
The ignorance of many politicians, who claim to stand for social welfare, is representative of how little awareness society has of disability issues. The website is a small step to solving a big problem. Suzuki says brands could do a lot more to define themselves by being helpful to society, as an alternative to the default use of celebrities to get their message out. But he adds that whatever they do should relate to them as a company, and that it’s vital that ‘social good’ projects do not just become one-offs. Having defined a problem, it’s important to continue to work to solve it.
The project also provided insight into how online content can be improved for sighted users. The painstaking process of collating and information about the candidates highlighted how poorly it’s usually presented. This led the team to reformat it to achieve consistency for each candidate and facilitate comparisons. “There aren’t many helpful websites that give you information to prepare for an election,” Suzuki said. “The information available isn’t interesting or helpful in general so there are politicians who get elected just because they were famous [in the non-political sphere].” Developing ways to engage the general public better would be a big help to society, he says.
Using the vocalization software also brought home just how detrimental invasive banner advertising (which the software picks up) is to the overall user experience. Kida points out that making a site for the blind was not a trade-off, but resulted in something that was ultimately better for everyone, visually impaired or not.
The team is in no doubt that the perspectives of people with disabilities can improve products and communications. “It provides another diversified point of view for the brand or product,” says Ochi. “It’s beneficial not just for them but for us as well.” On a previous project at Dentsu for a car client, Kida says visually impaired consultants helped them develop better interior design through heightened tactile and spatial awareness.
“You could say it’s about diversity, but I think it’s more than that,” Kida says.
In the run-up to Tokyo 2020, with a number of sponsors professing interest in the Paralympics and in using the event to promote a more inclusive society, it’s likely that brands will work more closely with the disabled.
In one recent example, the Olympic Committee itself worked with Shunsuke Narisawa, a blind social entrepreneur who helps companies to integrate disabled people into their workforces. Narisawa helped develop a universal system for purchasing Olympic and Paralympic tickets. The system replaced Braille (which only 8 percent of blind people can use) with a QR code.
Narisawa believes companies can benefit by hiring and maximising the unique abilities of disabled people, in terms of brand perception for having an inclusive policy, employee engagement and the quality of their products and communications. But he thinks a mindset change is needed first.
“Japanese companies are still more focused on what disabled people cannot do,” he says. “What’s most important is to leverage the strength that disabled people have…People with Asperger’s Syndrome or ADHD, for example, are very persistent in one particular thing. They keep improving the details of a single process. If [companies] can leverage that, they would improve the quality of their service for sure.”