Access All Areas

Ensuring your website is accessible to blind people may seem a daunting enough prospect, but try making surfing easier for those with motor impairment or cognitive disabilities.

While assistive technologies such as screen-readers can open the web to those who might not otherwise be able to use it, the responsibilities lie with site owners to ensure their sites are compatible with such add-ons. Given that the web is a largely visual medium, this requires a disciplined, back-to-basics approach to site design – but it is one that can ultimately improve the site for all users.

However the process of making a site accessible often falls to the web design team, with limited input from the business itself. In the worst instances, accessibility may be ‘tacked on’ as an afterthought or ignored altogether, opening companies up to unnecessary risk of litigation.

Legal status

Within the UK, companies providing goods or services are obliged by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to take ‘reasonable’ steps to make those services available to all members of the public.

When the Act was first unveiled there was some ambiguity as to whether this applied to the embryonic web. Certainly its inventor had no doubt: “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director famously said.

But under the Act, in theory, as long as a disabled person could access the goods and services through a bricks-and-mortar outlet, a company could argue that it was not legally obliged to make additional channels accessible.

However, following the phenomenal growth of the Internet as a commercial channel, in 2002 the Disability Rights Commission published a code of practice clarifying the matter: the Act does apply to websites.

While the Act as it applies online has yet to be thoroughly tested in the UK, Australia’s version of the law is similar – and in 2000, the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) was successfully sued after a blind man complained the Olympic website’s online timetable was inaccessible. That case was used as precedent in a legal battle over the United States’ equivalent provision, Section 508, with websites and compelled to pay $77,500 in compensation and commit to improving their accessibility.

Mike Carter, accessibility expert at web content management (WCM) vendor FatWire, says that while “from a moral point of view every one should take accessibility very seriously,” traditionally the emphasis on compliance “has been higher for government and the not-for-profit sector than it has for, say, a company providing an extranet to its supplier.”

The law’s interpretation of ‘disabled’ is also fairly broad, explains Henny Swan, formerly senior web accessibility consultant at the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and now web evangelist at browser maker Opera.

“In the UK, the law basically says you need to take any reasonable efforts to make sure that people can access goods and services” she says. “Your website needs to be accessible to the disabled and that means people with sight, mobility and reading impairments.”

What compliance means

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) publishes in-depth guidelines for three grades of accessibility. As well as criteria for the various standards, the latest version, WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) contains detailed and pragmatic advice: for instance, that content should not flash more than three times a second, and the flashing of saturated red should be avoided altogether.

Swan explains the new WCAG 2.0 ratings: “‘A’ is the basic level, that’s what an organisation must do [to be compliant]. ‘AA’ is what you should do, and is what I typically recommend people do. ‘AAA’ I don’t recommend for everyone, because it is too much. But you can cherry pick from it.”

The general standard varies by industry, she says. “Not-for-profit and UK government sites have always been mandated internally and make sure they are up to AAA standard. When I was a consultant, they represented the majority of sites coming to us. But on the flip side, banks and supermarkets have an acute awareness of [accessibility] particularly of the legal factors and fear of being taken to court.”

FatWire’s Carter notes that “most sites” interested in accessibility aim for AA, or ‘priority 2’. “In my experience, I’ve not seen that many AAA compliant sites, it’s an incredible amount of work to do, and is normally done by an external consultant,” he says. “[Otherwise] there are various applications out there that can tick off the WCAG priorities by looking at a site and saying whether or not it’s compliant, [for example] because the images don’t contain ‘alt tags’, so there’s no way a screen-reader can identify the image.”

Assistive screen-reading software is in fact an easy if simplistic way of conceptualising web accessibility. The most popular program is Jaws, accounting for 74% of the user-base, according to a survey by not-for-profit accessibility website WebAIM.

“There are lots of simple mistakes people make,” says Carter. “For example, many news sites have summaries of the articles and links that say ‘read more’. It’s quite common for a screen-reader to jump to a list of links on the page, so it will just say ‘read more’, ‘read more’, ‘read more’. It’s solved with a simple HTML trick.”
Swan warns however that many people “get sidetracked by the screen-reader issue. In many ways, it’s the poster-child for accessibility.”

Consequently, many companies believe that simply reducing their fully featured site to a text-only version constitutes accessibility.

“It’s a misconception,” says Swan. “The text version is not necessarily the most accessible version. If you take the screen-reader out of the picture, the text version is hellish. It tends to just be the regular version stripped of images, and if you have a link that was an image, without alt text (a description of the picture embedded in its HTML code) it loses context. Many people need visual clues: people who are new to the web, children, or those with cognitive disorders. A text-only version is never the way to go – it’s patronising, like being put on the kids’ table.”

WebAIM’s survey sample agrees with her: conventional wisdom has been to simply remove ‘mood’ images from an accessible version of a site, but 59% of screen-reader users feel very strongly that images which ‘enhance the mood or feel’ of a page should be described by their program.

That inclusiveness applies to rich Internet content as well, says Swan. New specifications like ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) act as bridges between screen-readers and dynamic content rendered in languages such as Java – currently most people using screen-readers are forced to disable JavaScript.

Beyond compliance

Compliance is only the first argument for accessibility, albeit the one most likely to generate boardroom discussion. However all the accessibility experts that Information Age spoke to argued passionately that designing a site to be accessible greatly increases its overall usability and leads to business benefits beyond simple legal lip service.

“There are spin-off benefits,” says Carter. “More accessibility means more usability, and that is a good thing to [improve] regardless.”

Brad Haynes, a consultant at web usability design company Flow Interactive, spent seven years working as head of user experience at online grocery fulfilment company Ocado, designing and coding a site that collected a veritable trove of awards including the RNIB’s ‘Visionary Design Award’ in 2006 for its accessibility, setting the standard for supermarket site design. Haynes believes the early decision to make the site easy to use for disabled people contributed significantly to its overall success.
“For Ocado [which has been the online ordering and delivery partner for Waitrose since 2002] it wasn’t a compliance thing, although that was something that was mentioned,” he says. “We wanted to do the right thing for consumers, and really there was no reason for us not to do it.

“Considering accessibility issues led to usability gains – things like keeping pages to sensible lengths, not filling them with tons of copy, giving pages a hierarchy and allowing them to ‘tell a story’ as you read through it. You don’t imply meaning through colour and position: for example, if something is ‘out of stock’ you print it as ‘out of stock’ and don’t just make it red. And we had a page that gave you two minutes to book a particular delivery slot, which wasn’t long enough for a screen-reader, or someone with motor impairment. If you get accessibility right, it goes a long way towards getting usability right. It is super-valuable.”

However Haynes warns it is a trap to view accessibility as something that can be ‘implemented’, or as a ‘phase’ “rather than a core value.”

“The companies who save it to last, or have to retrofit it, have it very hard,” he says. “It’s one of those things that can’t be a ‘one-off’, it really must be inherent. That way it’s not a big deal, just something you do as you go along. To try and pin it on afterwards, to sit down and say ‘now we have to make the site accessible,’ means you will probably have to degrade the design.”

Designing Ocado with accessibility in mind carried business benefits particular to an online grocer, beyond simply increasing the number of possible customers. Unlike an online retailer such as Amazon, each visit results in an average of 50 items being added to a cart, making speed a key factor for customers and putting heavy emphasis on clean, lightweight pages – ideal conditions for screen-readers.  

The simplistic coding discipline required by accessibility also keeps more intensive page features written in JavaScript or Ajax to a minimum. “It’s almost impossible to ake JavaScript and Ajax accessible,” Haynes says. And Flash – Flash is pretty tough. You’re in the Wild West with that one. Adobe is desperately trying to make their player more accessible.” (According to WebAIM, 71.5% of screen-reader users describe Flash as difficult.)

It can also be a mistake to think of accessibility only in terms of the disabled. After all, what is a mobile handset other than a device with a comparatively limited function compared to a PC?

“If a site is truly accessible then it’s truly usable,” says Haynes, “and the more usable, the better it is for mobile sites. Because you’ve been strict with the coding it’s easy to create a rendering in another format, although it varies depending on handset. One example would be with the iPhone. Making the hit-points larger and easier to press [with the touchscreen] makes a site easier to use.”

Swan agrees there is overlap between designing an accessible site and a mobile-friendly one. “It reinforces that we should be working towards one [version of the] web,” she says.

Future of accessibility

Accessibility will always be catching up with new web technologies, as people invent new ways of presenting content on the web and the writers of standards and makers of assistive technologies rush to keep up.

However, Swan is very concerned about the seeming lack of interest towards accessibility shown by social networking sites: the WebAIM survey found
54% of screen-reader users had no knowledge of whether Web 2.0 sites were even accessible.

“I firmly believe social networking is in danger of leaving a significant proportion of the population behind,” says Swan, adding that if ARIA proves successful it will go some way towards making Web 2.0’s dynamic web applications more accessible.
Carter is more optimistic: “I actually think [web accessibility] has come a long way in the last 10 years. It’s very much a catch-up race. People will always be coming up with new and interesting things.”

Haynes, meanwhile, has observed a growing number of sites working on becoming compliant.

“Retailers in particular are getting better, I’m seeing more compliant sites out there and there’s very few companies that dismiss [accessibility]. But being compliant doesn’t mean your site is more useable,” he says. “There’s a lot of basic stuff you can do to make your site more usable.”

A website that strives simply for compliance misses many opportunities to increase usability, something that impacts all users, disabled or otherwise. Put that way, says Haynes, “It’s really quite an easy thing to sell. Accessibility benefits everyone."

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