Test your Site for Accessibility with Cynthia Says ™

Accessibility on the Web

A White Paper by JKD
August 2003

 

Contents

Executive Summary

Introduction

What is accessibility?

Why should websites be accessible?

The disabled market

What is the Business Case for Being Accessible?

Simple Techniques for Accessibility

Testing Your Site

Conclusion

References

Contact Details

 

Executive Summary

The Internet provides the opportunity for people, whatever their circumstances, to find information, purchase products and services and contact people. The Internet was created with the intention of providing a level playing field – allowing individuals around the world to access information and services with equal ease, regardless of circumstance. The drive for accessible development puts this goal back at the forefront of Web development.

Just as in the physical world, where accessibility aids assist a variety of people, it is all users that can benefit from an accessible website. And, as in the physical world, the virtual kingdom of the
Internet is about to come under the scrutiny of the statute books. In the UK, from October 2004, offering services on the Web without addressing access concerns will leave the offending organisation liable for prosecution under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA).

With the number of disabled people in the UK estimated to be in the region of 15 per cent – approximately 9 million individuals – and an annual spending power that equates to £40 billion, organisations are beginning to see a different benefit that comes from tapping into this market.

The business cases for accessibility benefit all site visitors. Some of these include:

There are many guidelines to be followed for accessibility, depending on the level of compliance applied to a website. A few of these are listed below, but they do not constitute a strategy for creating an accessible website:

Remember: not every user operates in the same context as a designer or developer of a website.

By understanding this principle, many organisations will find the transition to an accessible site much easier than those that choose to ignore it.

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Introduction

The Internet is a medium that offers a chance for anyone to find information, buy products and services, and contact people, whether they are using assistive technology, an older browser version, or the most up-to-date piece of software. There can be few people left that the Internet has not touched in some way over the past five years. However, most of those people that have yet to experience the potential of the Internet are those that are disabled.

Moreover, the efficiency of retrieving information on the World Wide Web has decreased for all users and this is often due to the “since we can do it, we should” mentality1, which leads to the situation where only those people with the latest and greatest equipment, software and high-speed connection can obtain the information that they require.

This is where Web accessibility can help to overcome the barriers created over time by overzealous design departments and developers. Web accessibility and the principles that form its foundation – commonly advocated as a method of opening up the Internet to a disabled audience – can also benefit every user of the Internet, whether disabled or not.

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What is accessibility?

Web accessibility is best described as the “ability for individuals with disabilities to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to individuals without disabilities”2. This has been enshrined in legislation around the globe, including the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), which came into force in October 1999, which is becoming the primary pressure driving businesses to develop accessible websites.

With the advent of legislative updates for the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 on the horizon, providing information and services to as wide an audience as possible makes accessibility an option that must be considered. From October 2004, offering services on the Web without addressing accessibility concerns and opening up these services to a disabled audience could lead to a successful prosecution. At the time of writing, successful action had been brought against organisations in the US and Australia, and the Disabled Rights Commission (DRC) has announced in the UK that, with the support of the RNIB, it will be bringing the first test cases against offending site owners later in 2003. Not every user operates in the same context as the designer and developer of a website, a point that many organisations should do their best to remember.

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Why should websites be accessible?

Accessibility represents an important step towards independence for users with disabilities, as it can provide quick, easy, low-cost access to services and information3. Providing this added means of communication could broaden the scope of employment, entertainment and education opportunities, in addition to offering the chance to take part in day-to-day activities that many of us take for granted – such as banking and grocery shopping.
Just as in the physical world, where accessibility aids assist a variety of people with and without disabilities, it is all users that can benefit from an accessible website. Web pages that are created with a disabled audience in mind will be pleasing to the eye, fast loading, easy to maintain, present information in a direct and simple way, navigate with consistency, and will function across a range of browsers and rendering devices4.

With continual improvements in the usability of websites – understanding the way people use sites, identifying key tasks and information, finding support information – website operators are finding a reduction in support costs and the amount of customers that are abandoning shopping baskets before the checkout. Accessibility builds on this, firstly by helping to bring more customers to a site, and secondly by creating an environment that offers a simple, intuitive method for purchasing goods and services. Any analytics can therefore be tied to the shopping process, allowing key stakeholders to understand points of failure and difficulty.

The disabled market

Many disabled people literally live on their computers3. Often, a computer is a link to the outside world where a disabled person can perform as an equal to a non-disabled person. Catering for the disabled market will encourage users to spend money with your company. A conservative estimate places the number of disabled people in the UK at 15 per cent5– approximately nine million individuals – but it is likely to be a much higher figure3. The annual spending power in the UK equates to a minimum of £40 billion and this amount is being virtually ignored by commercial organisations.

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What is the Business Case for Being Accessible?

Initial benefits of accessible development include increasing discovery, access and usability of a website for all visitors are major benefits experienced from applying many accessibility elements.

However, there are many other business benefits that can be garnered from creating an accessible site. The following are business cases to consider for any future Web project6:

Improve usability for non-disabled and disabled visitors

The usability of websites is becoming a very important topic as organisations struggle to reach a wider audience. Since implementation of accessibility guidelines has the additional benefit of increasing the usability of websites, these guidelines can help improve client retention.

Support for low literacy levels

Low literacy includes those users with reading difficulties or whose first language is not that of the site. It is worth remembering that there are 5 million dyslexic people in the UK alone. With this statistic in mind, clear and plain language is of paramount importance for a website. Following accessible guidelines can support these users.

Improve search engine listings and resource discovery

Simply stated, content that is not text-based is not available to search engines or other automatic data-mining applications. Much important content on the site may be "locked-up" in non-searchable formats. The chances of finding specific information can be significantly increased by exposing this content, particularly by those searching for particular content via text alternatives, such as a combination of text-string searches and drop down boxes. So, from a strategic point of view, anything that can be done to increase the likelihood of a user finding the site will have a positive benefit.

With the recent advent of natural language search capabilities and the industry indulgence in knowledge management packages, the correct mark up of pages is integral to users finding information on a page or services available on the Internet. Natural language search facilities provide the bridge between navigation and accessibility on complex, dynamic sites.

Those search engines that go beyond basic text-string matching, utilising probability techniques, offers site owners the ability to offer results in a variety of ways, and can be displayed to the user in a way that they can access and understand the vast quantity of information that is available on the Internet.

Support for the semantic Web

The Semantic Web is a mesh of information linked together in such a way as to be easily processable by machines, on a global scale. It can be thought of as a globally linked database. The Semantic Web will enable data on the Internet to be defined and linked in such a way that it can be used by machines, not just for display purposes, but also for automation, integration and reuse of data across various applications. Organisations adopting elements of the Semantic Web will be positioned to increase their audiences as this new technology is developed.

Repurpose content for multiple formats or devices

Master style sheets allow quick and comprehensive changes to the overall look and feel of the site. A style sheet file can contain display instructions for numerous display technologies. This means that instead of having to re-edit every content page of the site to meet the needs of a new technology, only the master style sheet files need to be changed. Style sheets also allow different devices or end purposes (such as screen and printer or report and lecture presentation) to present the content in the most appropriate fashion for that device.
° Increase support for internationalisation
In an increasingly global marketplace, the use of internationally recognised symbols and language can prevent the alienation of a global audience. For future accessibility, the feature of selecting the required language is likely to be added to the Web Accessibility Initiative’s recommendations. For those organisations that perform commerce in other countries, the development of alternative language versions of the site should be considered. Simple, clear language free from jargon will translate easily into a foreign language.

Assist access for low bandwidth users

Providing alternative content that is appropriate for low-bandwidth connection is a market-increasing strategy. While affordable, available high-bandwidth technology is becoming a reality for some Web users, by far the majority of the world's users are limited to low bandwidth connections because of geographical isolation, or an underdeveloped communications infrastructure. Text alternatives aid users who turn off graphics in their browser in order to facilitate a faster connection speed, as well as those using text-only browsers.

Improve efficiency

Reduce site maintenance – Website development and maintenance costs are an ongoing concern for businesses. Applying design techniques that can reduce these costs is a strategic move. Clearer content and the inclusion of alt-text with images and other non-text elements will assist all visitors to a site in utilising the search facilities if they cannot locate the information or services they seek through normal navigation means. With increasing traffic on the Internet, many organisations are discovering that server performance has not kept up with client demand. The use of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and clear, consistent navigation will prevent the user asking for more pages than they need to because they cannot find the information they require, thus reducing the load on the server and preserving bandwidth.

Demonstrate social responsibility

Increasing the accessibility of your website and online services to a wide range of people with disabilities will reinforce your organisation's socially responsible attitude. All countries have significant numbers of people with disabilities - they comprise an influential proportion of the population. The population in many countries is also ageing, and with older age, the incidence of disabilities increases. Raising awareness of the requirements of people with disabilities through the creation and promotion of an accessible website and associated online services can help to influence internal operations and attitudes. This in turn creates a workplace that is more attractive to all and accessible to people with disabilities.

Reduce legal liability

In many countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and Australia, discrimination laws require governments, educational institutes, corporations and businesses to provide equal opportunities for people with disabilities.

This may include equal access to electronic information and services in the same way that physical access to facilities is required.

PR

Following accessibility guidelines closely and providing informed decisions throughout the organisation will enable a business to provide positive press feedback about its corporate responsibility and, in turn, help bring your organisation’s services to a wider audience.

Equal opportunities

Implementing accessible services and information delivery systems is not merely an external problem. To avoid accusations of discrimination and running the risk of additional prosecutions, internal systems such as the corporate intranet should be adapted to comply with the DDA. Again, this should be looked on as an opportunity to improve the delivery of key services, tools and information to all users, and utilise the feedback from current users to improve take up and levels of use.

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Simple Techniques for Accessibility

Although creating an accessible website is more than just added alternate text elements for page imagery, this is one of the simple rules that, if followed throughout the development cycle of a project, can greatly enhance the site’s usability for all visitors to the site7. The guidelines outlined by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)2 can enable any website to be created in an accessible fashion and should be used as a benchmark for accessible design and development.

A few quick tips from these guidelines are included here, but should not be considered as comprehensive instructions for creating an accessible website.

To show how a fully accessible site can work, JKD, the only communications technology agency on the UK Government’s list of approved suppliers, has created the Access Hub as its contribution to the International Year of the Disabled.

The site provides a free listing of all accessible sites and services in the UK in a completely accessible format. The Access Hub complies with all of the WAI’s accessible requirements (Triple-A compliance), and also provides the user with the opportunity to personalise the site specifically to their requirements – the first site in the world to take this approach. Testing of the beta version of the site has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from disabled groups throughout the UK and the world. It is intended that this site will be upheld as the benchmark for accessibility for all websites, big and small.

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Testing Your Site

As with any new set of guidelines, testing is affected by the changes that an accessible Web strategy can bring to a workflow system. Of the most important testing areas, validation of code is first and foremost, because without performing this integral task many other accessibility initiatives that have been created will not work correctly if the code that underlies it all is invalid. Testing will also be required to check that any workarounds provided sit well with internal brand guidelines.

It is recommended that an online tool be used, found here, to measure the accessibility of any sites developed.– both on a local environment and in the live, published environment of the Web. Tools such as Bobby offer cost effective solutions for this type of work, but they do require training and man-hours to implement and cannot be used automatically on a scheduled basis. Although this could present itself as a problem, there are automated tools available that can be optimised for the guidelines set out in any effective online strategy once they have been organised and agreed upon by all parties. Some of these products can be developed in line with existing content management systems and other technology whereby the integrity of ongoing accessibility is checked at the server by an automated tool and alerts sent to key stakeholders.

This is only part of the story. Usability studies make use of external user groups and testing for accessibility should also make use of such groups, as these provide useful feedback not only on proposed website development but on future strategies.

Web content should only be published in the live after rigorous testing using the methods described above. If content is to be published without following these guidelines, businesses could find that other areas of the site become inaccessible very quickly and without intervention from key stakeholders the site could soon lose the accessible audience that has increased through the integration of accessibility.

Any content that has already been published on the Web, such as sites developed prior to internal guidelines being formulated, should be tested against the guidelines.

However, if many of the guidelines for accessibility are followed, any changes that may require to be done as part of a monthly maintenance schedule should only apply to one document (content) or the other (structure) rather than both, if the separation of content and structure is implemented. Coupled with the validation of code, this process will make identifying areas of concern quicker and easier. 

Companies should review this area of Web maintenance to ensure that compliance is still valid and adjust any maintenance programme that affects accessibility to ensure its continuing integrity.

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Conclusion

Many organisations deem the creation of a text-only alternative to be enough for disabled users. However, JKD has proved that it is possible to create an accessible website that does not compromise the visual design of a site. With the increased use of content management software, the ability to create a visually appealing and accessible site has become easier than ever before.

Inclusive websites benefit every user, whereas a website that differentiates between its visitors is essentially saying that disabled users are not welcome.

Although retrofitting a website can be an expensive exercise, particularly if it is a large concern, putting accessibility at the forefront of the development process will ultimately aid in the long-term costs of the site8, as maintenance and server overheads are reduced. Websites that are simple to navigate will also bring repeat visitors to the site, creating an environment that will bring more users in contact with services and products.

The first stage to integrating accessibility is to evaluate any existing websites to identify whether any of the basic attributes of an accessible site are already in place. It is then important to determine which pages are non-compliant and decide how to retrofit these areas to meet the level of accessibility required. Perhaps the best way to achieve an objective result for this is to employ the services of an outside agency with the necessary skills to audit existing sites or to help plan new Web ventures in an accessible manner.

The key measure of success on a service-led site is being able to reduce or remove human intervention from the customer support process. The creation of a well-designed site will reduce costs and maintenance, offering significant savings from reduced call centres and the like.

If your organisation is to realise the business and ethical benefits of being compliant, you must implement an accessible web strategy today and remove the barriers to full usability. The time and money invested in paving the way towards an accessible site will reap its own rewards, and may well help avoid financial or other penalties in the near future.

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References

1. Making your website accessible; Owen, J. 2003.
http://www.cilip.org.uk/update/issues/jan03/article2jan.html

2. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI); World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). 1997-2003
http://www.w3.org/WAI/

3. The State of Web Accessibility; Fish, J.C. 2002
http://www.extremetech.com/print_article/0,3428,a=22871,00.asp

4. Web Authoring Pages; Pickering, J. 1999-2003
http://www.jp29.org/waca.htm

5. Web Accessibility for people with Disabilities; Paciello, M. 2000

6. Building Accessible Websites; Clark, J. 2002
http://www.joeclark.org/book/sashay/serialization/

7. Constructing Accessible Websites; Thatcher, J, et al. 2002

8. Guidelines for UK Government Websites; Office of the e-Envoy. 2002.
http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk/webguidelines.htm

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Contact Details

Mark Gristock
JKD
Westminster Business Square
1-45 Durham Street
London
SE11 5JH
UK

 

 

 

 

 

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