Companies have a legal and social responsibility to make sure that they do not discriminate on the basis of how they provide online services.
Happily, the accessibility measures needed to comply with UK law have profitable side effects: they often improve the general usability of a site, and they can make it easier for search engines to examine your site and give you a higher search ranking.
1. What is web accessibility?
The practice of giving people with disabilities equal access to websites and online content.
2. Why should I adopt accessibility?
- More sales - disabled web users have millions of pounds of disposable income.
- PR and public affairs advantage - win endorsement from influential public and charitable bodies.
- Avoid litigation - without accessibility in place there is no reason why your company won't be a target of legal action under the UK Disability Discrimination Act.
- Profitable side-effects - improved usability for all, means higher sales conversion; better ranking on search engines
3. Which disabilities are we talking about?
- Blindness (user has no sight)
- Low vision (user with restricted or impaired sight)
- Colour-blindness (user has inability to distinguish certain colours - often red and green)
- Motor disability (user has physical difficulty using a computer - often the mouse in particular)
- Cognitive or intellectual disability (the user experiences unusual difficulty in learning and is relatively ineffective in applying whatever he/she has learned to the problems of ordinary living)
4. How do people with these disabilities currently access the web?
There are specialist web browsers and assistive technologies available, for example:
JAWS translates written words into synthesised speech;
LYNX renders text line-by-line in Braille;
LINKS is a text-only browser - dropping graphics and typefaces.
SPECIAL KEYBOARDS adapted for use without a mouse (a mouse is useless for people who can't see the cursor or those who can't physically use it).
5. Won't I lose control of how my site looks and works by trying to support all these users?
No, the building blocks of accessibility are in the way pages are built - there is no need to fundamentally re-design the user interface. Generally speaking, the site only has to look different to users who actively express a preference to view it in a different way.
6. So is accessibility mainly a technical issue? Can I leave it to the developers to sort out?
It's true that there are important technical aspects to accessibility: common-sense design alone won't bring you in line with accepted standards, but beware leaving the solution exclusively to the IT bods: they may not thoroughly consider wider commercial issues when they plan implementation.
Over-zealous development teams have tried to implement every possible accessibility guideline in one fell swoop. This can mean incurring excessive cost with no discernable benefit to the user.
At the other extreme, it is possible to only partially implement accessibility if a thorough process is not followed. A high-street shop with an 80% finished wheelchair access ramp would not consider itself compliant with UK law - neither should partially accessible websites!
Make sure different voices from around the business are heard before you plan and execute an accessibility programme.
1. UK Disability Discrimination Act 1995
Section 21 of the Act gives disabled people improved rights of access to goods, facilities and services. Department of Education and Employment advice says:
"As a service provider, you might discriminate against a disabled person in two ways:
By treating him or her less favourably than other customers because of their disability; or
By not making reasonable adjustments to the way you deliver your services, so that disabled people can use them."
In October 2004 the Act came into full effect, leaving businesses no defence unless they have at least a coherent plan for implementing "reasonable adjustments".
2. Will companies with no plans for web accessibility be prosecuted?
Probably. The government-funded Disability Rights Commission reported in April 2004 that "swathes of businesses may not be complying with existing equal access laws" and that it is "only a matter of time" before they face legal action from disabled consumers.
Australia has its own Disability Discrimination Act and as long ago as 2000. Bruce Maguire successfully sued the organisers of the Sydney Olympics for excluding him, as a blind user, from the content of their site. The case helped "road-test" some of the legal arguments involved in this area.
3. What official guidelines or standards exist for web accessibility?
Fortunately the UK government and major charitable organisations agree on what companies should do: implement the 14 accessibility guidelines issued by W3C WAI.
4. What on earth is W3C WAI?
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international organisation which develops standards for the internet. It comprises the great and the good of the internet plus people from governments and technology companies the world over.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is a working party set up by W3C to set standards for making web pages accessible to as many people as possible. The first major output from this group was a set of guidelines which are seen as a standard all over the world.
W3C is currently drafting a new (simpler) set of WAI guidelines. In the meantime, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 is the accepted standard.
5. What are the guidelines?
- Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content
- Don't rely on colour alone
- Use mark-up and style sheets and do so properly
- Clarify natural language usage
- Create tables that transform gracefully
- Ensure that pages featuring new technologies transform gracefully
- Ensure user control of time-sensitive content changes
- Ensure direct accessibility of embedded user interfaces
- Design for device-independence
- Use interim solutions
- Use W3C technologies and guidelines
- Provide context and orientation information
- Provide clear navigation mechanisms
- Ensure that documents are clear and simple
6. Do I have to get it all done at once?
This is where the WAI offers some welcome common-sense. Accessibility can be phased - there is no need for a "Big Bang" approach. In fact, the WAI offers three levels of accreditation:
A - the site incorporates all the "must-have" checkpoints of the WAI guidelines. This gives basic access to most groups of disabled users. This level of accreditation should be every company's initial target - it is eminently achievable.
AA - the site incorporates all the "should-have" checkpoints. This brings down all of the significant barriers to users. Can be achieved with a bit more planning and investment.
AAA - the site incorporates all the "may-have" checkpoints. Needs significant levels of planning and investment. May not be of practical merit for commercial organisations.
What's more a published statement of intent will often be enough to protect companies against action or adverse publicity while work is being carried out. However this would need to be credible and reflect an understanding and acceptance of WAI guidelines.
7. Are there any other important standards?
The Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) offers its own accreditation - the See It Right mark. It draws on some of the same WAI guidelines described above. RNIB describe it as sitting 'between the WAI "A" and "AA" standards'. Winning the mark also gets you inclusion on a list of "approved" companies on the See It Right website - a resource for blind and partially-sighted internet users.
8. Where should I start?
Talk to us. We have experience of planning and implementation support that will get accessibility moving without impacting your commercial performance.
A thorough evaluation of your current site to determine the level of conformance with accepted international guidelines.
We use a combination of manual and automated techniques to examine target pages in detail. We also examine the system as a whole and make observations about the site from the user's perspective.
Our findings take the form of a presentation report. This includes technical guidance as well as suggestions on content and design.
An evaluation can be briefed, conducted and de-briefed in as little as two weeks.
3. Implementation Support
Once you have defined your goals for accessibility you can get as little or as much additional help as you need. We have expert resource in technical, development, marketing, content and design.
If you would like to find out more about making your site accessible, call 0845 123 2900 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.