Earlier this month on 10 January 2024, the Singapore Parliament held a discussion on the motion of digital safety and inclusion.
The motion was entitled “Building an Inclusive and Safe Digital Society” – a motion calling on Parliament to reconfirm its commitments to digital safety and inclusion in confronting the challenges that are brought about by an increasingly digitalised world. The motion contained 13 recommendations on achieving this commitment.
It is noteworthy that one of the thirteen recommendations is “requiring essential service providers to ensure accessibility for all”. It is also a step in the right direction that when members of Parliament were outlining the thirteen recommendations, it was noted that digital inclusion must embrace diversity which includes the need to “ensure digital interfaces are inclusive by design”.
The State of Digital Inclusion for People with Disabilities in Singapore
Ensuring digital inclusion for persons with disabilities is greatly needed in Singapore due to the many accessibility barriers in the digital space within the island nation that still confronts persons with disabilities – especially (but not limited to) persons with sensory disabilities.
This is particularly the case in the Singapore digital space run by private sector entities. Below are a few examples.
As we have noted in previous publications, there are no legislative or regulatory requirements in Singapore for companies and other private sector entities to make their digital platforms accessible to persons with disabilities – and as a result, many are not. For example, many websites and mobile applications run by Singapore companies and other private sector entities are not accessible for individuals with visual impairment or print disabilities who rely on screen reading software.
As noted during the 10 January motion, Singapore and the rest of the world is becoming increasingly digitalised. Many of our day-to-day essential activities are conducted in the digital space – whether it be visiting websites or using mobile applications for banking activities, paying bills, or purchasing everyday amenities such as food, groceries, or healthcare products.
Yet, whether screen reader users can access the digital platforms where such activities are conducted will depend on whether website and mobile application developers design their sites and apps with accessibility in consideration to be compatible with screen reading software. Today, there are ample guides online and trainings available on how website and mobile application developers can make their sites and apps accessible. However, as mentioned, due to the absence of any regulation for such important accessibility measures within the private sector, many digital platforms run by such private sector entities are not designed with accessibility and remain inaccessible to persons with disabilities who rely on screen readers – making it unnecessarily difficult and arduous for screen reader users to access important and common goods and services in Singapore.
This presents great inequities as persons with disabilities, if anything, need more access to goods and services not less – yet, because of a lack of regulations, persons with disabilities, especially sensory disabilities, have less access.
Whether persons with disabilities can access the digital space run by companies and private sector entities also depends on the policies surrounding the digital space run by such entities – and whether such policies are inclusive of the realities of the disability community. This is also an area for much needed improvement in Singapore.
As we have highlighted, one such example is with the current state of access to banking services for deaf people in Singapore.
For many Singaporeans, banking is conducted online – whether it be making transfers or checking through past bank statements. Several banks have set up their system where any issues with one’s account can be resolved online or via their mobile application. However, this is not the case for all banking issues nor for all banks. There are instances where the bank requires, by policy, the account owner to call the bank to resolve the issue. However, this is not possible for deaf people. Many deaf individuals have to take leave from work to go down to the physical branch of their bank to resolve any issues with their accounts – something that most other non-disabled and hearing Singaporeans can do easily via a quick phone call. It is worth noting that such policies not only create access barriers for deaf people, but also access barriers for many persons with speech-related disabilities.
The digital space must not only be designed with accessibility and inclusion but also the policies that surround the use of digital space must be established with accessibility and inclusion in incorporated from the get-go.
DPA’s Response to 10 January Motion
As noted, we at DPA have previously highlighted – through our past publications and write-ups – such afore-mentioned concerns and realities from persons with disabilities. Leading up to the 10 January motion, we at DPA appreciate that we had the opportunity to convey a few of the above points to nominated member of Parliament (NMP) Mr. Ong Hua Han who included them in his response to the motion.
In reply to various responses to the motion, including NMP Ong’s response, Senior Minister of State (SMS) of Communications and Information, Mr. Tan Kiat How, noted some of the government’s efforts towards improving digital inclusion for persons with disabilities.
SMS Tan noted the ongoing work to increase the number of high-traffic government websites in meeting accessibility standards as part of the Enabling Masterplan 2030 (EMP2030) goal of making all high-traffic government websites fully accessible. He also noted the grants available for the purchasing of assistive technology through the Assistive Technology Fund (ATF) and the training of the use of such technologies through Tech Enable.
SMS Tan further noted the government’s efforts to provide e-accessibility training and consultation services for companies to learn how to incorporate and include e-accessibility features in their digital services, along with Purple ALLY – a free and open-sourced testing tool developed by GovTech – to assist digital teams to check how they can improve accessibility in their digital products and services. SMS Tan noted that he “encourage(s) industry partners to make use of these resources and do more to make their services accessible to all Singaporeans”. SMS Tan finally noted that the government will continue to work with Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) to incorporate accessibility-related subject matters in IHL curriculum.
Such initiatives are very important and are needed to increase accessibility and digital inclusion for persons with disabilities.
DPA would like to enquire as to the take-up rate of such e-accessibility trainings and consultancy services, along with how companies have been utilising such trainings and services in optimising the accessibility of their digital products and services. Furthermore, Purple ALLY presents much potential and thus it would be good to know the utilisation rate of the testing tool by companies.
DPA raises such enquiries as due to the access barriers that still exist in the digital space for persons with disabilities as outlined above, there may be the need for a more regulatory approach. As outlined, the current access barriers in the digital space results in persons with disabilities experiencing unnecessary inequities in accessing everyday amenities and thus there is a need for regulation rather than solely an encouragement approach.
As noted, the government has plans to ensure that by 2030 all high traffic government websites follow accessibility standards – specifically ensuring that by 2030 all high traffic government websites follows Singapore’s Digital Service Standard (DSS) which is in conformity with the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 at the AA level. [WCAG standards have three levels: “A” being the minimum; “AA” being mid-range; and “AAA” being the highest.]
This is an important target; however, like most Singaporeans, persons with disabilities do not spend most of our time on government websites and there thus needs to be some level of regulations to extend such standards into the digital space outside of government websites. As we have done in our feedback during the consultation period of the development of EMP2030, we at DPA would like to take this opportunity to call again for better regulations to improve and optimise accessibility and inclusion for persons with disabilities in the Singapore digital space – including that run by non-governmental and private sector entities.
Such regulations on the private sector are not unpragmatic nor is it a new approach in optimising digital inclusion for persons with disabilities. Other countries around the world have implemented such regulations – along with criteria to progressively realise such regulatory requirements for companies and private sector entities within their jurisdictions. For example, some countries have implemented such regulations by beginning with companies receiving public funds and requiring such companies to comply with the same accessibility standards as government websites. The government can also begin with a review of more essential services such as banking services to ensure that the design, implementation, and policies guiding such design and implementations for accessibility to such essential services follow universal design principles and comply with WCAG 2.1 AA standards.
To achieve the recommendation of “requiring essential service providers to ensure accessibility for all”, DPA believes it is important for the government to extend the DSS to websites and mobile applications run by non-government and private sector entities. As noted, the government can begin with more essential services run by non-governmental and private sector entities.
Additionally, to support such non-governmental and private sector entities, DPA agrees with the recommendation of NMP Ong for the Government to “consider expanding the scope of the Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG) to support the development and improvement of websites, mobile applications, digital products and services and make them accessible to all”. DPA has made similar recommendations in previous years – most notably following Budget Speech 2022.
Moreover, pertaining to the topic of the motion of digital safety and inclusion, there needs to be more efforts to ensure that achieving digital safety does not compromise digital inclusion. Currently, it is not uncommon for persons with disabilities to encounter access barriers in navigating security measures in accessing the digital space. For example, it is not uncommon for websites and mobile applications to only include a visual CAPTCHA option when asking users to login or verify their identity. Additionally, verification methods such as facial verification – where users are required to angle their phones in a particular manner to take a picture – presents access barriers for persons with disabilities such as the blind/visually impaired and individuals with particular physical disabilities that make it difficult to perform such tasks.
Ensuring digital safety is a must and thus it is important to ensure that persons with disabilities do not face barriers in the process. The government can begin by ensuring that government websites and mobile applications do not require individuals to undergo methods such as facial recognition verification steps to access information on such websites and mobile applications and that alternative verification methods are accessible and timely.
Finally, we live in an ever-increasingly digitalised world – where new technologies and digital features are continually changing. Updates to websites, mobile applications, and other software and hardware in and around the digital space occur frequently. There thus needs to be protocols in place to ensure that persons with disabilities are not left behind in the ever-changing digital landscape. Such protocols should ensure that accessibility is incorporated from the get-go and not after the development and roll-out of updated and new technologies.
For example, in his speech, NMP Ong noted that after the latest updated of the HealthHub application, the app presented a number of access barriers for blind/visually impaired individuals to navigate such as unlabelled buttons in the app that are not screen reader friendly.
There thus needs to be protocol in place – in both the public and private sector – to ensure that any updates to the digital space – i.e. on websites and mobile applications – includes protocol to ensure accessibility in the design and development of such updates. Such protocols should apply not only to updates of the design and development of technologies in the digital space, but also updates to the implementation and policies pertaining to the digital space.
These are just several of the main elements that are important in ensuring digital inclusion for persons with disabilities in Singapore.
DPA as always welcomes further conversations and collaborations with new and existing partners on accomplishing the above objectives.