Accessible website design
The widespread use of standards to facilitate equality is familiar in our society. Just as buildings must be designed to be accessible to everyone, so must websites be. The Internet was founded on the principles of accessibility; however most websites currently fail to comply with even the most basic level of accessibility, currently rendering the internet largely obsolete to around 100 million people.
A 100 million-strong global audience is hardly a market not worth targeting. There has always been a sound business case, as well as a moral impetus, for web accessibility. Now there is also a legal obligation to make your website accessible to disabled users.
The 1999 Disability Discrimination Act makes it clear that information online should be accessible to disabled people. Although there has been no UK court action to date, there have been high profile cases in other countries where claimants have been awarded significant compensation for disability discrimination as a result of a non-compliant website.
The UK Disability Rights Commission recently announced that one thousand websites will be investigated for their ability to be accessed by Britain's 8.5 million disabled people. You should comply with the Disability Discrimination laws as a matter of best practice. Everyone will benefit from your accessibility, including you.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was created in October 1994 to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential, partly by creating some common standards to ensure interoperability. This commitment includes promoting a high degree of usability for people with disabilities.
The 'Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0' (WCAG) is a W3C specification providing guidance on accessibility of Web sites for people with disabilities. Developed by the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C-WAI), the specification contains fourteen guidelines which are general principles of accessible design. These guidelines not only make pages more accessible to people with disabilities, they make them more accessible to all users, including those using different technologies to view the pages. The WAI home page has up-to-date information on the Web Accessibility Initiative.
Legally, you achieve web accessibility determined on how your site measures up against the de-facto W3C-WAI standards. These standards point to 3 levels of web accessibility:
- A - Which legally you must comply with.
- AA - Which you should achieve; or your site will still be inaccessible to a large number of people.
- AAA - Which should be aspired towards as far as is possible.
Practical measures you can take include structuring the site so that it will work with a screen-reader; ensuring the site can be navigated without the aid of a mouse; and enabling viewers to change the text size and background colours.
Ensure that you provide alt-tags for sounds and video, not just for images; and make sure that the text you provide is descriptive (i.e. not 'company logo'). You should also make use of descriptive links (i.e. not 'click here' or 'learn more'), as screen-readers read links out of context.
How to check your site
There are many partly-automated 'accessibility checkers' on the web (the most well known being Bobby: bobby.watchfire.com and the most thorough being Site Valet: valet.webthing.com/access/url.html); which assess websites against their interpretations of the W3C-WAI guidelines. You can use these 'checkers' to see how your website fares accessibility-wise, but you must not rely on them.
Accessibility checkers can't be perfect, and it must be emphasised that a website is not accessible just because one or more says so. For example, most don't check whether alternative image text is appropriate; and those that do mostly get it wrong. (Believe it or not, technology still has its limitations). The checkers can also (less commonly) note accessibility issues where there are none, due to their interpretation of the guidelines.
Does accessible = boring?
Accessibility does not mean that your website has to be black and white, boring, or text-only. Many sites have used text-only pages as a solution to accessibility; however by following the W3C guidelines it should be unnecessary in almost all cases to go down this route.
Take a look around www.fwoss.com. Our site is neither colourless nor dull, yet it is AAA compliant throughout. Accessible websites do not need to be designed very differently to inaccessible ones; they just need to be carefully constructed with flexibility in mind.
What you can do
Getting your website accessible need not be a headache if you go to a qualified software development company. Make sure you run their website through one of the above checkers first, to see how it fairs.