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Making the future accessible

28 September 2010

Here at CharityComms, we're looking at updating and redesigning our website. As part of that process, we wanted to make sure we understood what ‘accessible’ actually means in the context of a website, why it matters and how to find out how well a site checks out. So we asked Robin Christopherson, Head of Accessibility Services at AbilityNet – the national computing and disability charity – to explain…

We are all aware that providers of goods, services and information to the public have been obliged to make their buildings accessible since the adoption of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1999; but the requirement for websites to be equally accessible is not so widely recognised nor understood.

There are well over 10 million registered disabled people in the UK. An estimated 6 million have dyslexia and many millions more have literacy difficulties. The growing number of so called "silver surfers" (20 million UK residents are 50 or over) would suggest a corresponding increase in those with failing eyesight and conditions associated with old age, like arthritis. At the same time, there has been a significant upsurge in internet use by the older generation – they currently comprise some 22% of website visitors.

The Disability Discrimination Act demands that organisations must deliver goods and services via their websites to disabled people on an equal basis to other visitors and that they must make "reasonable adjustments" to achieve this objective. In other words, a website must be as accessible as a shop. Whilst no one is suggesting a "technological lock-out" would be knowingly imposed, this is a particularly pertinent issue for third sector organisations which are likely to have a disproportionate number of disabled people amongst their target audiences.

Web designers need to be aware of the vast numbers of disabled people who use specialist technologies to browse the Internet, such as screen reading and voice recognition software, as well as many more who are reliant on the keyboard rather than the mouse.

User-friendly and easier to navigate

Whilst many suppliers are becoming increasingly nervous about the legislative climate and worried about what their obligations may or may not be, the bottom line is this: an accessible site is good for the public as a whole – whether disabled or "able-bodied" end-users find them more ‘user-friendly’ and easier to navigate.

For the voluntary sector the on-line channel provides a remarkably cost effective way to deliver information and communicate with target audiences. It is inexpensive in comparison with more traditional methods of delivery and, by optimising accessibility, remarkably efficient too. You can deliver advice, support and training on-line; you can advertise, market and promote. You can disseminate information to large dispersed groups or strategically target individuals and you can refine, re-direct and re-formulate your message as often as you like, with virtually no cost implication, relative to other methods.

Competitive advantage

The business case is compelling if one considers that an accessible site can deliver a 35% "usability bonus" for every visitor – a factor which translates directly into competitive advantage and time efficiency for the provider. When we seek services or information on-line, we are seeking critical functionality – namely speed and efficiency – not a life-changing experience. Accessible sites are simply easier and more intuitive to use: they improve productivity for everyone.

Prevailing Accessibility

AbilityNet uses a series of both manual checks and automated tools to evaluate whether the needs of visitors with a vision impairment, dyslexia or physical problem making a mouse difficult or impossible, are met adequately.

Despite the legislation, cyberspace can contain just as many obstacles as the physical world. The Disability Rights Commission (now part of the Equality and Human Rights Commission) investigation supports our findings and suggests that over 80% of sites fail to satisfy a base level of accessibility.

It is not surprising to note that the same survey shows that only 9% of website developers claim any real understanding of access issues. Basic training in the fundamental principles of accessibility, should be a prerequisite for such professionals and would prevent some of the most commonly encountered obstacles recurring. Once a site is built, it is a lot more difficult, time consuming and expensive to rectify the faults. It’s much easier not to incorporate them in the first place!

Top five sins

Choose a site at random and chances are it will present significant barriers to accessibility, the most common of which are:

1. Images have no text tooltips – so vital for blind users.

2. Text is ‘hard-coded’, so that users cannot choose their own size or style for greater readability.

3. Videos, animations or interactive elements (such as Flash) are not accessible and have no alternatives, and often add distracting movement to a page that cannot easily be stopped.

4. Use of JavaScript (mini programs embedded in the page) not properly tested for accessibility. Disabled people and those using older browsers or mobile phones often find they cannot use a shopping cart or register for an account on many websites.

5. The site requires the use of a mouse – keyboard users often find that they cannot use drop-down menus, click buttons or use Flash.

AbilityNet’s five point strategy:

1. Ensure that pages are uncluttered, consistently laid out and use the simplest appropriate language.

2. Ensure that visitors can easily choose their own colour, text size and screen resolution and that each page behaves well when these changes are made.

3. Ensure that your pages conform to the global standards of the World Wide Web Consortium – and the BSI guidelines on website commissioning  contained in the PAS78 and the soon to be issued BS8878 (AbilityNet was on both expert authoring panels).

4. Ensure that content is accessible and usable to disabled people in reality by testing with a range of the most widely encountered assistive technologies such as screen reading and voice recognition software.

5. Make efforts to ensure on-going accessibility and usability.

Robin Christopherson

head of digital inclusion, AbilityNet

Robin worked as an IT instructor for RNIB and became a founding member of AbilityNet in 1998. He founded the team now globally acclaimed as experts in accessibility auditing, disabled user testing and designing websites that are accessible and easy to use by all.