US online retailer Target.com is facing legal action brought by Bruce Sexton, a member of the National Federation of the Blind. Sexton is suing the organisation on behalf of blind people in California, claiming they are being denied access to the retailer's online shopping services.
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Although legal requirements and a negative public image represent the accessibility "sticks", there are many "carrots" for organisations that make efforts to meet them, including cleaner and easier to use websites (and hence improved customer satisfaction), cheaper and easier site maintenance and, in some cases, increased traffic and revenue.
An accessible website can also be more readable for search engine spiders, which can push it up the search engine rankings.
The good news is that website developers have access to a growing armoury of resources for creating accessible websites.
The first thing to bear in mind is that the issue of web accessibility does not only apply to blind users. For example, visual impairment covers a spectrum of sight-related disabilities, from age-related myopia to chromatic sight conditions.
And users with motor disabilities may encounter problems as they cannot use a mouse, making navigation around a poorly designed website using the tab and return keys virtually impossible.
Sufferers of cognitive disabilities, such as dyslexia, require specialised speech output to read out the text on a web page, and this requires the content to be in an appropriate format. Even users with hearing impairments can face problems when accessing unsympathetic websites.
Online resources outline many of these problems and ways to avoid them. PAS 78, for example, is a good starting point as a technical guide on how to commission an accessible site. Created by the British Standards Institute, the document is a distillation of global expertise.
The de facto world standard is provided by the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), whose Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) explain how to make content accessible to people with disabilities and offer website evaluation tools.
The guidelines outline 65 check points for web accessibility, prioritised into three levels. The first 16 points are must-haves - that is, websites must comply with these to ensure the minimum level of web accessibility. Those that do are awarded an A-grade web accessibility certification.
The second level - providing a certification of AA - represents 35 website check points. The remaining points represent the final level - AAA - which consists of features that are nice to have but are difficult to achieve.
According to Robin Christopherson, head of accessibility services at assistive technology charity AbilityNet (which has a AAA-certified website), less than 1% of sites meet the third level for web accessibility.
A survey by the Disability Rights Commission in 2004 found that 81% of websites do not meet the basic A certification.
It also showed that only 9% of developers have any expertise in the field, meaning that few organisations have the resources in place to meet those requirements.
"Seven years on from the Disability Discrimination Act, it is inexcusable to not have a web accessibility plan in place. If someone threatens to take you to court it would be an advantage to be able to say: 'Okay, we hold our hands up, but we plan to meet the A grade requirements of the WAI within three months'," said Christopherson.
The next stage in creating an accessible website is to assess the existing accessibility status of the site. Automatic testing tools are available for this task, including Webexact, Cynthia Says, Wave and the Web Accessibility Toolbar.
These tools can provide a snapshot of web accessibility, but they are not comprehensive and should be used only as a first pass.
"You can have a website that meets all the technical guidelines for accessibility, but that does not mean it is useable. Automatic testing tools will only pick up a fraction of the problems. They are good for an initial test of a website, but we always recommend user testing - including disabled users - in combination," said Christopherson.
Léonie Watson, head of accessibility at web design agency Nomensa and a blind internet user herself, said, "The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines have 65 different check points, but most automatic tools only pick up five of them with complete accuracy, and another eight with partial accuracy. They can tell you if a problem exists, but not what the problem is or how to change it. They are not sophisticated enough and do not behave like a human user."
She advocates involving disabled users from the design process through to final testing of the website, as they can quickly highlight many of the common problems.
The most frequent mistake is the absence or inappropriate use of text descriptions for images. Visually impaired users often rely on speech output technology to read out content. Unable to see images, they rely on an embedded alternative text description to describe them.
According to Watson, these descriptions are often missing or incorrect, and though an automatic testing tool can highlight a missing text description, it cannot check whether it is accurate.
Other common mistakes include poorly thought-out or missing headings, which are vital for page navigation and need to be marked up in HTML code rather than on the page itself, and illogical navigation through the page when using the tab key, which can make navigation impossible for a disabled user unable to operate a mouse.
Chris Rourke, managing director of web accessibility design firm User Vision, said Flash websites and PDF documents are two of the more challenging barriers to web accessibility, and described PDFs as the "Achilles heel of accessibility".
However, Rourke said there was no excuse for not overcoming them. Adobe 7.0, for example, includes a built-in web accessibility testing tool.
Most observers accept that web accessibility guidelines can be difficult to interpret. Here, the expertise of specialist design agencies - such as Nomensa, User Vision and Reading Room - can provide knowledge transfer to in-house IT teams or individual developers, as well as a consultancy service to help tackle some of the more complex problems, such as interactive areas, web-based forms and secure areas.
Sarah Matthews, co-founder of online retailer You On Earth, which used Nomensa to build an accessible website from scratch in three months, recommends that anyone considering a web accessibility project work with experts and keep things as simple as possible.
"Do not be too clever with your design - using fancy Flash animation can alienate all your potential customers, not just those with a disability," Matthews said.
Unsurprisingly, the resources available to public sector organisations and large firms, particularly in the financial services and retail industries, have put them at the head of the accessibility pack. However, it is by no means financially out of reach for smaller businesses.
Steve Beasley, software developer at the Disability Rights Commission, used accessibility design agency Reading Room to overhaul the organisation's website in 2002. The entire project took just two months and cost £10,000.
Beasley said the cost of supporting accessibility was only a small percentage of the total cost, but he warned that "retro-fitting" web accessibility could be expensive.
Likewise, Brighton-based Back 2 Balance Chiropractic Clinic recently built an accessible website on a shoestring budget. Using a freelance developer who used the WCAG as a resource, the small practice now has a non-Flash website which conforms to the A grade WAI requirements, and is accessible by patients of all ages and abilities.
Due to the heavy use of graphics on the clinic's primary website, the designer, Adam Bouqdib, followed the WCAG, and created a second website based on XHTML transitional tags. Among the work needed was adding text descriptions for every image on the main site and assigning labels to each input box.
The guidelines state that the second website needs to be updated as often as the main one. Bouqdib said, "To make sure it would always have the same content I wrote a template script. This way every page only exists once and is just displayed in two different layouts - the main design and the accessible one."
Web accessibility appears daunting at first, but once organisations understand the issues faced by disabled users, it ultimately boils down to the secret of all successful websites: good design.
Five web accessibility mistakes
- Missing or incorrect alternative text explanations for images.
- Page headings not marked up within the HTML code.
- Poorly designed tab and return navigation through a web page
- "Click here" links that do not contain any text or speech output information for visually impaired users about the link's destination
- "Self-triggering" drop-down menus that automatically redirect users without their knowledge or consent.
Are you on the right side of the law?
There is no legislation specifically covering web accessibility, but the Disability Discrimination Act states that disabled people must be given the same level of access to public information and services as able-bodied persons. Almost certainly that would include websites.
Though no legal actions over web accessibility have yet reached court in the UK, it is only a matter of time.
Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer at Pinsent Masons, said, "Previous discrimination cases suggest that the sums involved would be modest - in the region of £1,000. Although the sums of money are not massive, past discrimination cases have led to organisations been pilloried in the press and receiving negative publicity, which is far more damaging than the monetary award."