A Wasted Opportunity? The DRC Has Its Say

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This article was posted in response to an earlier article entitled: A Wasted Opportunity for the Web Accessibility Cause By Trenton Moss

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) published the first comprehensive report into the user friendliness of websites last month, (The Web: Access and Inclusion for Disabled People). The research covered websites in the Government, business, leisure, web services and e-commerce sectors and its aim was to examine whether current website design was a help or a hindrance to disabled people’s ability to actually use them. It also aimed to reveal reasons for inaccessibility.

With the Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design at City University, the DRC looked at a representative sample of 1,000 public websites. Among these, 100 sites were subjected to in depth evaluation by a disabled users group who had a range of impairments. Researchers also canvassed the views of more than 700 businesses that had commissioned websites and nearly 400 website developers.

The study found that eight out of ten websites fail even the most rudimentary criteria for web access for disabled people and make it next to impossible for many disabled users to access the Web. The survey also revealed that the average home page contains 108 obstacles that make it difficult or impossible for disabled people to use.
In its report the DRC argues for “a charge of heart” from the online community. In particular website developers should involve disabled users with a range of sensory, cognitive and mobility impairments right from the start of the design process.

For a trail blazing report as this, criticism must follow as inevitably as night follows day. The DRC is not afraid of the discussions that have ensued since its investigation. Why didn’t we name and shame those web site offenders and what are we saying about the usefulness of existing web access guidelines were two of the question raised. Others focused on whether our research had usability or access at its core. I will deal with these points in turn.

The DRC has wide powers of investigation enshrined in the DRC Act. Among these are powers to conduct named investigations against one or more parties and to compel their cooperation. But these powers must be balanced by responsibilities to the people or organisations being investigated, which include rights to legal representation and other such privileges. Since the DRC wished to conduct a wide ranging investigation it would be impossible to deal with potentially 1,000 sets of organisations and their lawyers! So the DRC opted for a more general form of investigation. This allows us to investigate whomever we please without their knowledge or consent. But we may not name them without their agreement. Hence the silence regarding names.

On access guidelines we should clear that the WAI is the only game in town. We fully support the work they do and we champion the guidelines. We say the guidelines are necessary but not sufficient, and we believe that conclusion has been borne out by our very thorough research. More work needs to be done in this area, but in the meantime, who believes they cannot rely on the guidelines? Not us, and we will take issue with anyone who thinks they can be ignored with impunity.

Some of our critics seem to consider “accessibility” and “usability” to be completely separate matters. The DRC is concerned not with semantic debate but with the practical difficulties disabled people face when trying to use the Web. While it is true that usability issues affect all of us, disabled and non-disabled alike, it is equally true to say that usability issues can disproportionately affect disabled people. The issue of usability is thus one of practical accessibility. So far from being unable to distinguish between the two, the DRC is very aware of how the two hugely overlap and blend together.

Further questions on the approach of our investigation have been raised, in particular our using an accessibility measuring tool on 1,000 websites and then “only” testing 100 sites. Not too impressive for a year’s work, you may think, but that was only the beginning. The year was spent designing the testing; selecting statistically significant and representative sites; recruiting testers and subjects; performing all the testing; collating and analysing the results (which were distilled into the report – much more remains to be published and will be); writing the report and translating it into other languages and accessible forms, arranging the ground breaking webcast launch where simultaneous captioning and signing was done. Not bad for a year’s work.

The key point is that accessibility can be done by anyone, and the idea of user testing is all too often dismissed. Web accessibility, we are told, is about following design standards and then adding in a few simple accessibility features. If sites were all developed safely using “basic HTML and CSS design knowledge” to create a plain vanilla Web then this would be largely true. But the technology evolves all the time and web commissioners and designers will not settle for the lowest common denominator if they can help it. As with any software development project, user testing is essential, and by seeking to exclude disabled people from that process, critics of this approach are in danger of aligning themselves with those who would prefer to develop what they like how they like. Sure, if a cutting edge site is developed that proves to be inaccessible then changes can be made, either because of genuine concern or because of the threat of legal action. But what a waste of time and money, not to mention frustration to excluded visitors. How much better to involve your user base throughout, from the design to final testing. This is established good practice in software development and this applies no less to a website than to an accounting package.

The report was the result of an investigation that was set up with very specific objectives. Whilst we would have liked to extend the scope of our work far and wide, we were necessarily limited in our aims and objectives. We believe we have succeeded. The investigation is unrivalled in its breadth and depth, and has brought the subject into the spotlight. Much more needs to be done and the DRC will be playing its part as will the WAI and, for all our disagreements, so will many others of goodwill. Ultimately, we are all on the same side.

This article was posted in response to an earlier article entitled: A Wasted Opportunity for the Web Accessibility Cause By Trenton Moss

Publication Date: Friday 21st May, 2004
Author: Patrick Edwards View profile

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