Blogging Against Disablism Day: making websites accessible

01 May 2007


Blogging against disablism logoThis October, the UK's Disability Rights Commission will be subsumed into the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. One body will bring together the work that has previously been carried out in the DRC, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

For me, there's a fundamental difference about the work the DRC does. While it's true that people with disabilities face prejudice (as do many people by virtue of their race, gender or sexuality), there are also many people with disabilities who are disadvantaged through technology.

The web is a good example of this. It's not difficult to eliminate the most common problems that people experience when using assistive devices. For example, you should provide alternative text for pictures so that screen readers can read a description out loud for blind people. You should make sure your site can be navigated using the keyboard, so that people who can't control a mouse can still get in. You should make sure that your fonts are legible and can be enlarged with the browser settings. You shouldn't use colour to convey meaning. There are extensive checklists published by the Web Accessibility Initiative. They can look daunting, but most are common sense and just fixing the top priorities would help a lot of people access your content.

The DRC has done some valuable work over the last few years investigating web accessibility. Although it has been supportive of the WAI guidelines, its own usability lab tests found that many of the problems encountered in usability tests weren't addressed by the WAI checkpoints. That helped to change the industry perception from one of 'ticking the boxes' to one of 'making sites useable for every audience'. The DRC also developed an accessible flash game and co-published a guide to commissioning accessible websites [link no longer available].

I very much hope that the integrated CEHR is able to dedicate the same resource and expertise to tackling the technical barriers that prevent people with disabilities from having equal opportunities.

There is still a long way to go in web accessibility. When using Blogger's image upload function for the first time today, I was shocked that it didn't prompt me for an ALT tag. The blogspot templates are mostly reasonably accessible, but the blogs stop being accessible as soon as anyone posts any images. Mad.

I also visited a website for work today which used two different colours to distinguish between content that did and did not require registration. This was a business that had probably paid handsomely for a website that some would argue contravenes disability discrimination law.

Most web 2.0 services present accessibility problems too. Shouldn't we be more worried that significant members of our society are being shut out of the conversation?

For most of us the internet is a luxury. We might depend on it, but we'd cope without. For some people with disabilities, the web has literally changed their lives. For the first time, some will have the opportunity to do their own shopping and banking. Deaf-blind people can receive the news the same time as the rest of us and join in the debate at the same time too. But only if sites are well designed.

There is a payback for the site owners too. Not only will they win the custom of people with disabilities, but they will also find their accessible sites index better in search engines and perform better on mobile devices. As I've been playing with the Nintendo DS browser lately, I've found accessible sites work like a dream.

So who is to blame for inaccessible sites? Many businesses will be unaware of their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act to ensure services are accessible, and others will shirk that responsibility. Ultimately, the site owner is responsible for the experience it provides, and is the party who reaps the rewards of making the site useable.

But I blame lazy designers. I worked on a major website project some years back where the bidders all promised they could build us an accessible site. When I questioned something our chosen provider had built which was inaccessible, they replied 'how many of your readers are blind, though?'.

It's 2007. We've been talking about accessibility for years and yet we still see broken sites launching. Anyone who sells website designs should understand the importance of accessibility and should fit it as standard. It's part of the design challenge, not an optional extra. All those people who are clever enough to invent web 2.0 services should be smart enough to make them work for everyone. All those people selling corporate websites owe it to their clients to make sure everyone can access them, and to explain what they're doing and why.

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