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In conversation with: the Digital Accessibility Centre

What has Companies House got in common with Channel 4 and the Nationwide Building Society, not to mention dozens of local authorities, government departments and non-profit organisations?

Answer – we all rely on the expertise of a relatively small but vitally important company called the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC), a non-profit organisation based in Llandarcy near Neath in south Wales.

The DAC works with clients to help them to create digital media that’s accessible to all members of society, the kind that meets best practice in terms of accessibility standards and legislation.

What’s more, every member of their user testing team has a disability. In other words, they know first-hand whether a website, intranet, mobile app, online service or remote control is accessible to them or not.

Here, James Francis and Alistair Musgrove of Companies House sit down with Cam Nicholl and Mike Jones of DAC – virtually and distanced, of course – to talk about working together and how that relationship has enhanced our brilliant digital services.

Cam: Where did the relationship between the Digital Accessibility Centre and Companies House begin? Well, I guess in 2010 when we registered with Companies House and first started trading! Back then we had 6 employees and today we have 59, so that shows you how far we’ve come.

But, seriously, I seem to remember it began with Companies House coming to us through the contract that we had with HM Revenue and Customs.  

James: I think it began with one of our digital accounts filing services. That’s when I first visited DAC around 5 years ago, because that’s something they’re really keen on – when they are testing for you, they encourage you to spend time with them in an informal setting to see how things are translating. That way you get to see it all coming together. You can ask questions and get answers from the people who, at the end of the day, are the actual users.

I have not been back for maybe 2 or 3 years because what we try and do is not send the same people. That way the knowledge is spread throughout Companies House so that all our services add value and help promote effective compliance. 

Cam: Which, in my opinion, is exactly the right thing to do. 

The way I think of it is this – it can happen to any of us. Today we may not have a disability, and tomorrow we may. There’s the psychological and emotional aspects that come with that, but there’s also the practical aspect. If I bank online, I want to be able to do that regardless. I do not want to have to ask one of my daughters ‘Can you do me a favour and look at my bank account? 

This is why we have to work to remove as many challenges as we can to inclusion for everyone in everyday society. 

James: Yes exactly. In Companies House we’ve got a team of developers and testers who will test our services expertly and thoroughly. But, traditionally, accessibility is not something that we have expertise in. We get so far with our testing, but without DAC we would miss things.

They have an army of testers there who’ve got the expertise and life-experiences that our testers have not. Not taking anything away from our testers, because they’re fantastic, but if we did not go to DAC and get the audits then we’d miss some of those user needs. DAC are vital to what we do, in other words. 

Mike: I’d always been visually impaired, but I did have enough sight in my left eye to read a normal print book. Over the course of 4 or 5 years, that sight went down to the point where there was genuinely nothing left.

I had to completely readjust. Then iPhones and other things came in, and I was continually readjusting. As Cam says, you do not want to ask people for help, but then not everybody has people there to help them.

Companies House has been very good at wanting to improve their services to make sure that people can do it independently. I work with a lot of government departments but, in relation to Companies House, the feedback is always taken on board when it’s given to improve a service.  

Cam: I’ve always found the appetite for learning first-hand from the teams at Companies House to be terrific. We’re always being asked ‘Can people come down?’ while our site is being tested. There’s real buy-in from all the teams at Companies House, and that’s what’s so nice. 

Alistair: I’ve been at Companies House for just over 2 years, so I’m relatively new to the service, but I’ve found that the focus surrounding accessibility, and the tools put in place, has increased since I’ve been here. I feel now that our services are being designed around accessibility rather than accessibility being an afterthought, or something we have to do because of the Government Digital Service (GDS).

There’s a definite step-change and DAC have played a key part in that. In terms of legislation changes and GDS ruling, when we have our assessments and audits, I suppose you could look at that as being almost dictated and mandatory, but it does all add up to promoting the message of accessibility and making sure all our services are on a level playing field. 

Mike: The interesting thing is that by doing what we do, and what Companies House is striving to do, we’re actually encouraging more people to use these services. In that sense, it does not just have to apply to someone with a disability.

An easy-to-use service is an easy-to-use service. For instance, it’s so much easier and nicer to have one question instead of 20 on a single-page form. We want people to use digital services, so having that as a driver is of paramount importance.  

Our 5 year strategy details a new vision for Companies House and outlines our commitment to driving confidence in the UK economy.

Read more about how we’re helping to make the UK the best place to start and run a business.

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