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The hottest issue in the web community today is web accessibility for the disabled. UK and international laws has forced accessibility to the top of the agenda; it affects business executives since they are legally bound to comply, and it affects web developers who must improve programming standards. This makes accessibility rich fodder for 'bandwagoning', obfuscation and false statements. In the first of a series of three articles, ITnews pinpoints your legal responsibilities and sets the record straight on disability...
Few could deny the success of the internet. The introduction of email and, in 1995, the World Wide Web has had a profound impact on our lives. It is now inextricably woven into our daily activities – in the way we live, work and study.
The time has now come in this, the European Year of Disabled People, to make the internet more inclusive – to remove the obstacles individuals with disabilities face when they access the internet. This is not just a legal requirement (and it is, right now) it is also an excellent marketing strategy.
Around 20% of the workforce in all western societies suffers from disabilities. In the USA this translates to 53 million people1 and 8.5 million people in the UK2. The annual spending power of these people runs into the hundreds of billions. That is an awfully big market to turn your back on.
So by making your site accessible (whether you offer goods, services or information) you can increase your current market reach by about a quarter. Business opportunities of this magnitude don't come along every day – and, in any event, it is a legal requirement.
In fact, the term 'web accessibility' is something of a misnomer. As we shall see below, the law requires that all goods, facilities and services are made available to everyone, irrespective of the delivery system. So the law does not just apply to web sites in particular, but also intranets, extranets, enterprise applications and software. But, so long as that is understood, I guess 'web accessibly' is as good a term as any.
So why is all this important at all? I have had it said to me that accessibility is political correctness run wild. Well actually, there is more to it than that. Imagine, if you will, a large communications company advertising its broadband service on the radio. It gives out a phone number, but says you can make further savings if you order over the web. Now imagine that a blind person hears the ad on the radio and wants to make a saving by ordering online, but the web site in question is inaccessible to the blind. In practice, this means that the saving is not available to the blind. This, of course, is discriminatory and, quite rightly, illegal.
It is important (critical, in fact) that the disabled have the same access to commerce and information as everyone else.
There is much confusion about what the legal requirements on accessibility actually are and what needs to be done about them. You may have heard something about the Disability Discrimination Act, Section 508, regulations coming in from October 2004, the Web Accessibility Initiative, and so on.
One thing is a sure thing, when it comes to the law: it a hazardous to guess and you can't simply apply logic or reason to come up with a meaning. It is even more dangerous to listen to chatter. Are you really prepared to gamble your criminal responsibility on what you hear in a wine bar?
So let's clear things up. There are legal controls in operation in the UK now! If you have heard that there is no legal requirement until October 2004, then you are being misled.
According to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) every web site that offers "goods, facilities or services" must make 'reasonable adjustments' in order to be accessible to disabled users. Now, it is not made absolutely clear what a 'reasonable adjustment' is, but I would suggest that arguing that your site is inaccessible on the grounds that it is poorly coded or that it is a legacy system would be considered an 'unreasonable' argument by the courts.
The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) is empowered by Parliament to enforce the provisions of the DDA. Bert Massie, Chairman of the DRC, says: "Organisations which offer goods and services on the web already have a legal duty to make their sites accessible". He continues: "The DRC is committed to enforcing the obligations". If your site reaches a UK audience offering goods, services or other facilities – and it is not accessible – then you are breaking the law right now.
Having said that, the DRC would prefer to 'help' businesses comply with the law rather than hunt them down. It has chosen to do this by conducting a survey, announced earlier this year, of 1,000 major sites in the UK. They will be rigorously put through their paces and the results (damning, they will undoubtedly be) published in a 'name and shame' report due at the end of the year. It is also worth noting that the DRC encourages – and actively supports – civil action by those that have been disenfranchised by inaccessible web sites.
So it looks as if web accessibility will go the same way data protection did. Few prosecutions brought, since the DRC does not have the resources to adequately police all web sites, but the public actively encouraged to sue companies in breach of the DDA. Given the choice between the two, I daresay directors would be more fearful or damages stretching into the hundreds of thousands, rather than a small fine and a slap on the wrist.
The UK is acknowledged to be leading the field in Europe in its legislation. An amendment Bill to the DDA due next year will also include cancer and HIV patients into the fold, qualifying them as disabled from diagnosis. The European Commission (e-Accessibility) is due to issue a directive next year compelling all member states to enact similar legislation by the end of the year.
Various operational standards are being generated by official bodies. The Office of the e-Envoy has produced the Guidelines for UK Government Web Sites, for example. The EU has launched e-Europe ("Information Society for All") which is publishing guidelines for public sector web sites across Europe.
These guidelines are based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as part of its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). WCAG consists of 14 guidelines – general principles – of accessible web design. These guidelines are broken down into a total of 65 specific checkpoints (compliancy measures). The checkpoints apply to a three-tier priority system:
Conformance with the standard permits you to display A, AA or AAA marques on your site. But you should be careful, here. WCAG is an industry standard and although it was used as the source for various governmental guidelines, it has no basis in law. WCAG is not the test, but whether your site discriminates against any disabled person in any way.
When we refer to 'the disabled' who do we actually mean? What are the disabilities out there and what does accessibility mean to them? This may seem obvious, but it is far from it.
The DDA defines a disability as a hysical or mental impairment that has a long-term or substantial effect on a person's ability to carry out day to day tasks. 'Long-term' means any disability that has lasted – or is likely to last – more than 12 months. Also, if someone has a progressive condition that is likely to have a disabling effect in the future, then they are counted as disabled from diagnosis. Finally, effects which have subsided are still counted if they are likely to occur again.
But because the web is such a visual medium, many do not consider disabilities beyond visual impairments. In fact, entire charity and pressure group campaigns are targeted primarily in this area. For example, the Royal National Institute for the Blind runs a See it Right campaign, which is actually a service. For an annual fee, RNIB will audit your web site to your desired level of accessibility (not necessarily the legal one) and, if it 'passes', allow you to use the See it Right marque for a year.
But this, in isolation, does not meet legal requirements. There are many more types of disability that come into play. So in order to remove barriers for the disabled, you have to think like them and appreciate the problems they face. The types of disabilities experienced may be arranged in six broad categories: visual, auditory, speech, motor, cognitive and neurological. It is worth running through these categories with examples of disabilities and what accessibility means to them.
This is the most readily recognised category. It includes the blind, those with reduced vision (e.g. short-sighted) and the colour blind. Many understand that the blind often use readers such as JAWS or IBM's Home Page Reader , to read the contents of a web page aloud. Of course, images are useless to the blind visitor and must be explained by ALT text for a utilitarian function of LONGDESC for an aesthetic one. These explanations are read out to the visitor.
But more subtle considerations are often missed by web developers. For example, the order in which a web page is read out (in the order instructions appear in HTML and not in the order displayed in the browser window). Since entire menu systems are read out, this could be very tedious if it is the first thing you read out on each page visited. A blind person must not only be able to navigate between pages, but also page content itself.
Things become more difficult when considering those with reduced eyesight. Critical here, is that screen fonts can be scaled so that they can be read by the individual, pretty much like you can do in Word for Windows. But how many web sites do you know that can be scaled in this way? Most are constructed with absolute font sizes and no functionality for increasing them. This disenfranchises the poor-sighted and is therefore illegal. A means for overcoming this is to use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to format page content (rather than format in the page mark-up itself). So UK standards, such as those produced by the Office of the e-Envoy, have mandated the use of CSS – sites must use the standard.
Finally, we come to the colour blind. In the UK, around 2 million people3 suffer from some form of colour-blindness. Yet it is amazing to see the volume of colour-dependency on the web. Most commonly, this takes the form of menu options that subtly change colour to show they are active, page links, image roll-overs, and so on. Turn off the colour on your computer and view your site in monochrome. If the functions no longer make sense then you are breaking the law.
It is true that the deaf or those that have auditory disabilities do not suffer accessibility problems as much as some other disability groups because most sites function identically with the sound turned off. But with increasing take-up of broadband and the trend toward more media-rich sites, this is not going to remain the case. If your site includes music or other audio clips, then text representation must also be made available. Similarly, movie clips and video streaming must have subtitles available and these should be time-indexed to the content of the video (in other words, simply publishing a transcript of the movie clip will not do).
Many physical disabilities inhibit or prevent use of the mouse. In some cases those with motor disabilities are able to use the keyboard, but in more extreme cases people may use touch screens, head pointers or other assistive devices. Yet a very high percentage of web sites actually demand the use of a mouse. Events (functions) are specifically triggered – on programming level – by the mouse hovering over an object or one of the mouse buttons being clicked. This makes the functions exclusive to mouse users and excludes everyone else. Obviously, it is a requirement in law to make the functions available by alternative means.
This is one of the least understood disability groups. It is wrong to assume that this group constitutes solely those with below-average intelligence – there is much more to it than that. Disabilities in this group would also include spatial awareness, memory problems and dyslexia, among others. For example, this category could easily include those suffering from diabetes or multiple sclerosis.
Programmers and graphic designers tend to get uncommonly high scores in tests of spatial reasoning skills and are therefore good at visualising the structure of a web site. This is reflected in many of the sites they design and build – the structure and navigation of web sites can be confusing even to the fully cognisant and it is safe to assume that most users will have significantly greater difficulty navigating a web site than its designers. These difficulties can be tackled in a number of ways. Firstly, site content should not be nested too deeply. Secondly, a method of displaying the path to the current page (known as a 'breadcrumb') is helpful. People who have difficulty visualising the structure of a web site (which is a high percentage) should also be provided with a simple site map, accessible from any page.
Those with impaired speech seldom have difficulty accessing the web, since so little of it is voice-controlled (although computer operating systems should be). Even so, site designers can be tripped up; for example, where a 'call-back' button is used. If you want to speak to a sales representative or, say, raise a complaint, you enter your telephone number and click the call-back button and then someone will telephone you. Obviously, this is not much use if you are unable to converse with the caller.
The neurologically impaired are also suffering increased difficulties when accessing sites. 'Improvements' in programming techniques (DHTML, for example) mean that many sites now display overlapping windows and animated objects on the page, strobing text and other display mechanisms. The abundance of animated GIFs (the flashing advertisements we are all familiar with) are also most unwelcome.
So far, we have only touched the surface. An important thing to remember is that most disabilities are caused by catastrophic events or disease and deterioration. Sure, some people are blind at birth, but many others suffer the same disability as the result of an accident. A sobering thought – and the absolute impetus for delivering on accessibility – is that any one of us could join the ranks of the disabled tomorrow.
So the case is clear. We know that sites offering goods, services, other facilities or educational information must be completely accessible now. It is the law. That means that many sites out there -- almost all of them -- are currently trading illegally. Lawyers are bracing themselves and the government is gearing up for prosecutions. It will get worse next year.
We have also gained an appreciation of the disability groups concerned and the types of disability they face. Even so, it is important to realise that accessibility is not just about the disabled. The same standards used to deliver content accessible to the disabled, also make the content available to other means of accessing the web, such as mobile phones, PDAs, etc.
Making your site accessible is not only a legal requirement but it also makes solid commercial sense. Many site operators publish in multiple languages to increase their customer reach. Accessibility gives them that on a plate.Next time, we take a detailed look at how it all went wrong and the specific difficulties faced by web developers on the path to accessibility. We will also plot the route out of the quagmire.