Why your site should have disabled access

Have you heard the one about the blind man in Australia who could not read the Olympic Web site? He successfully sued the Olympic...

Have you heard the one about the blind man in Australia who could not read the Olympic Web site? He successfully sued the Olympic Commission for failing to give adequate access.

At the time, the UK press was incredulous that a blind person would even consider surfing the Web but, under the 1995 Disability and Discrimination Act, UK service providers could find that they too are flouting the law.

Responsibility for promoting greater access to the Internet also lies with Web designers, design agencies and the colleges where they learn their skills.

One of the key attributes of a competent designer is an awareness of the requirements and capabilities of the target audience. This awareness needs to include the 5.2 million disabled people of working age in the UK.

Only 1% of people who are registered as blind in the UK have zero vision. People who have visual, hearing or mobility impairments, or learning disabilities may read Internet pages with the help of adaptive technology. But few sites are designed or built to accommodate these products.

The World-Wide Web Consortium estimates that more than 90% of all sites on the Web are inaccessible to disabled users.

In an attempt to increase awareness and highlight how sites need to be improved Mencap reviewed 30 of the most popular sites on the Internet.

The Royal Mail's site came out as one of the high scorers. Hannah Norrie, information architect at design company Rufus Leonard, worked on the Royal Mail's access site and is a strong advocate of increasing Internet accessibility.

"You need to create a site with a flexible approach, because disabled people are not a homogeneous group," she says. "Blind people tend to be prioritised, while people with learning and cognitive disabilities are neglected in comparison."

Norrie says many Web sites are inaccessible simply because their designers are ignorant of the issues. She gives the example of sites using frames that screen readers - which can produce synthesised voice output from text - cannot cope with.

It is impossible to use one interface to reach all the different audiences. However, the Royal Mail site has been designed to be as accessible as is reasonably possible.

Norrie says minor adjustments, such as using text instead of images can make a real difference. It is also worth bearing in mind that screen readers scan from left to right and up and down - putting a graphic in the middle of a piece of text will make this process more difficult.

But this does not mean that accessible Web sites have to be dull, text-only affairs. Norrie emphasises that the use of colour, icons and pictures can support the site, providing they are used strategically.

The BBC Web site also received praise from the Mencap survey. Nick Holmes, team leader in the coding applications team at BBC New Media, is well aware of the technical frustrations that disabled people face. "We try to provide alternative content, for flash movies, although currently this is not always possible, we are working on it," he says. "However we do provide alt tags on all relevant pictures."

The BBC site also has a filter program, called Betsie, that creates an automatic text-only version of the Web site. Web designers have had to adapt their working practices accordingly.

"Because the Betsie system removes all the graphics, there has been a tendency in the past for designers to consider usability issues as primarily a build problem but nowadays designers are much more aware that we must improve accessibility as a matter of course," says Holmes.

Another organisation that has obviously had to make its site user-friendly is Mencap itself. "We worked with focus groups and put together test pages to see how people with learning difficulties use the Internet," says Matthew Bellamy, senior designer on the Mencap site. "The most complex task is trying to cater to so many different audiences."

Making sites accessible
Accessibility guidelines for designers:

www.mencap.org.uk

Details of the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative:
www.w3.org/WAI

The Disability Discrimination Act:
www.disability.gov.uk/

Examples of best practice:
www.royalmail.com/access
www.bbc.co.uk/
www.mencap.org.uk/
This was last published in November 2001

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