Why is web accessibility important to you?
The following article by Matt Williams appeared in the Building Engineer Journal published by the Association of Building Engineers (the ABE). The ABE asked Matt to write the article because of his pioneering work creating accessible websites for EDF Energy, the biggest energy company in Europe, for governmental organisations like the Crown Prosecution Service, ASSI (part of the Civil Aviation Authority) and the NHS.
Accessibility and the law
The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) created a legal duty for businesses and organisations to ensure their services are available to everyone regardless of disability. As someone involved in building engineering you will be well aware of the implications of the DDA in your day to day professional life. Physical barriers that hinder access to buildings and facilities are often very plain to see, as are the remedial actions taken to remove these barriers. As an industry professional your understanding of accessible design of buildings, and of the action needed to remove barriers will be highly attuned.
Web accessibility legislated in the UK
However there is an area of your professional life affected by the DDA you are less likely to be aware of, web accessibility. Your business or organisation almost certainly has a website, and unless you have taken deliberate steps to ensure that it is accessible then you may be contravening the DDA.
Web accessibility is about designing sites for everyone, independent of who they are or how they access the Internet. It specifically addresses the needs of disabled people, giving them the opportunity to use your website.
It is irrelevant whether services are provided with or without payment, and the DDA is clearly applicable to information and services supplied via the Internet. Indeed, the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) has started threatening inaccessible website owners with legal action if they do not improve accessibility. This is a major watershed for the web, and at last, disabled people have their basic rights acknowledged.
Aside from legal reasons there are moral and business reasons why an accessible website is a fundamentally good idea for your organisation. An accessible website enhances your reputation, differentiating you positively from your competitors.
Why has web accessibility become a significant issue?
The DDA is only one factor that contributes to the importance of web accessibility:
- An early successful action over web accessibility (Barry Maguire vs Sydney Olympics Organising Committee) won the litigant $20,000 in damages, and the legal and subsequent web development costs ran into millions. Subsequently, AOL settled out of court in an action brought by the US National Federation of the Blind. The recent actions by the RNIB against some inaccessible website owners in the UK means the threat of legal action is very real.
- The UK government funded Disabled Rights Commission (DRC) is empowered by the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999, to instigate formal investigations to eliminate discrimination and encouraging good practice in the treatment of disabled people. The DRC are currently carrying out accessibility testing on over 1,000 UK public and private sector websites and will soon publish a “name and shame” report.
- Through their UK online programme the government aims to give everyone access to the internet by 2005, with all government departments fully online. The use of the web to deliver governmental services is a major paradigm shift, with the web now a predominant method for distributing information, rivalling TV, radio and paper-based communication. The advantage of web technology is that it allows for a massive repository of dynamic information to be made available to everyone, if that information is delivered in an accessible form.
That’s the big picture, but why is web accessibility important to me?
We have dealt with the legal issues, but is there a valid business case for accessibility? Certainly, the maths is simple. The larger the number of people that are able to access your website means the larger the number of people that will utilise your website. This translates to a more efficient distribution of information for corporate, governmental and educational sites and an increase in turnover for e-commerce sites.
The Disability Rights Commission summed up the business argument in a most compelling way: “There are 8.5 million disabled people in Britain with a combined annual spending power of £40 billion. People aged over 50 have a combined annual income in excess of £160 billion. Yet, inclusive design - the idea of reaching this vast market by making products as easy to use as possible for as many people as possible - is still not considered worthwhile by most designers, manufacturers and engineers”.
If your website does not take into account the needs of disabled people then you are excluding a massive part of your potential audience who suffer from mild disabilities, such as colour blindness, poor sight, arthritis and learning difficulties. These people can be excluded from your website because of inaccessible design just as much as people with more severe disabilities.
What do we need to think about when we are considering the access of disabled people to our websites?
It is important to think of disability as a spectrum, with varying types and levels of disability.
- Visual impairments: The Internet is primarily a visual medium, and as such presents many problems to those with impaired vision. For example (i) Colour blindness affects between 8% and 10% of the male population in the UK, and for these people insufficient contrast between foreground and background colours, such as for the text that appears on your website, can render your content unreadable (ii) Small text sizes limit those with restricted vision. Most Internet browser software allows visitors to resize the text that appears on web pages to make it more readable, but a large number of websites are constructed in such a way that this functionality is turned off (iii) If your website provides prompts and navigation tools such as menu systems only in visual format and without alternative text it will cause huge problems for a blind person using screen reader software. There are many other factors that need to be considered if your website is to be used effectively by blind people, because the software that they use relies on websites being built in accordance with best practice.
- Mobility impairments: People with mobility impairments may lack the dexterity or hand-eye coordination to use a mouse and they therefore rely on the keyboard or some form of assistance device. With this in mind, website navigation systems should be easy to use and identify. A simple test is to check whether you can fully use your own website without using a mouse, using the tab key on your keyboard, or access keys (where the keys on your keyboard are assigned special actions), alone.
- Cognitive impairments: People with cognitive or learning impairments such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder require a logical order for content, well presented text written in clear sentences and graphical icons to aid navigation.
- Hearing impairments: Audio and video content is used increasingly on the Internet and this makes the inclusion of text transcripts of any file that would otherwise rely on sound very important. Those with hearing impairments will then be able to follow the action.
How is accessibility achieved?
If only there were a set of simple rules to follow then website owners and their designers would have a simple task to make their websites accessible. Unfortunately though, there are no absolute guidelines. However, the industry has a widely acknowledged standards setting body, the W3C. This organisation is responsible for the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) which in May 1999 launched the first comprehensive set of web accessibility guidelines on which popular accessibility tools such as ‘Bobby’ base their judgements.
The WAI accessibility guidelines set out three priority levels to which a website should aspire. The first of these, level ‘A’, is essential for basic accessibility and a failure to implement these guidelines means potential users will be prevented from meaningful interaction and run the risk of falling foul of the DDA.
The second level, ‘Double-A’, offers solutions to further stumbling blocks and the third level, ‘Triple-A’ demonstrates a real commitment to accessibility excellence.
Many observers believe that ‘Triple-A’ compliance is either unachievable, or compromises other requirements of a corporate web presence such as brand impact and design. At Revs we believe that a ‘Double-A’ website that incorporates a managed additional set of facilities is likely to achieve the best balance of design and accessibility although each of our websites is built to individual requirements.
Revs and accessibility - practicing good design
Revs undertake a process that values consistency, flexibility and usability whilst never neglecting the creative urge. By thinking foremost about taking an inclusive approach we do not end up ramming accessibility down website visitor’s throats. We create websites that have life and vitality and that can also be viewed by the widest audience possible.
- Accessible creativity: There is a tendency for some accessible websites to be text-heavy - though this is symptomatic of a lack of thought rather than a consideration of a disabled person’s needs. Revs believe that accessibility can be used to assist and enhance a user’s experience of your website. Building a website to satisfy the needs of someone with a cognitive impairment should not adversely affect the experience of someone with a mobility impairment and vice versa. Similarly, a user with good vision should not suffer due to modifications made for someone with a visual impairment. Revs offers the thought and creativity necessary to ensure that every change made to a website is a positive change - for everyone.
- Usability and accessibility: Accessibility is rightly regarded as being a part of the wider issue of usability. Usability is the design of navigation, content and structure so that all users can carry out tasks effectively. In the development of an accessible website, many usability issues are touched on. Usability requires a deep organisation and structure of information, while accessibility involves removing barriers to that information.
Corporate barriers to accessibility
If your business supports the concept of accessibility in its widest context, then the implementation of an accessible web presence is a logical conclusion. We have found that obtaining a statement of intent is the strongest driver in triggering web accessibility projects. However, not all initiatives start at the top, they can also occur as a result of informed thinking by individuals within businesses or organisations who have the vision to understand how they can include disabled people within their business strategy to mutual advantage.
The most gratifying phenomenon is the snowball effect of accessibility as its implications become understood within large organisations. Managers and board members are quick to understand the value of siding with the strong arguments that the web accessibility initiative provides.
Web accessibility is vital to those with disabilities and vital for achieving strong usable websites. It is fundamental to the creation of a better Internet.
Useful web links:
Royal National Institute of the Blind http://www.rnib.org.uk
Revs.org, creative web design agency specialising in dynamic, accessible websites http://www.revs.org
W3C article titled "Auxiliary Benefits of Accessible Web Design" www.w3.org/WAI/bcase/benefits.html
Bobby website accessibility testing tool
Phone Revs on 01702 475170