What is website accessibility?
Able-bodied and sighted people are fortunate, and take for granted many things which they do every day – including surfing the Web.
- by Peter Labrow
Most sighted people are amazed to find that blind people can, and do, use the Web. However, for disabled people, using most websites is a frustrating and difficult experience – simply because they were developed by sighted people, for sighted people. Website accessibility is simply about developing websites so that they are equally accessible to people with disabilities.
How do disabled people access websites?
This depends on their disability. Blind people use ‘screen readers’ to audibly read a website to them. People with motor disabilities use access devices other than mice. When a site is not written to support accessible access, the disabled visitor simply cannot make sense of the website.
The business case for accessibility
In the UK alone there are over two million blind people. Purely in commercial terms, this is a market that many companies should not ignore. There are also other commercial drivers – for example, most government and local government departments are now stipulating that suppliers’ websites be compliant with accessibility standards.
The social case for accessibility
Consider if you were blind – the Internet is a wonderful means to provide hitherto unimagined levels of information access. How frustrating – and annoying – is it when companies deploy websites which are not accessible? Although there is an overhead to making a website accessible, it is not onerous. Architects and builders are required to add ramps and lifts to public-access buildings and no one sees this as unreasonable. The same is true of websites. It is far easier to make a website accessible than it is a brochure, so it is an excellent means of making information or services available without discrimination.
The legal case for accessibility
It is UK, European, US and International law that organisations make services equally available to able and disabled people. This includes websites. Any legal action taken would be civil, rather than criminal, but an organisation with a non-compliant website, which doesn’t make an attempt to fix it, would not win against such an action. However, organisations should recognise the benefits to having an accessible website, not the negatives associated with not having one.
Do accessible websites have to be boring?
No – though sadly, many are! The main reason for this is that accessibility standards are best applied directly into the HTML code, and many Web designers use tools which mean they don’t have to learn how to write code. So, design-heavy websites do tend to be the least accessible, though this doesn’t have to be the case. The flip side of this is that many accessible websites are written by people who are ‘good at code’ but lacking in design skills. Both good design and good coding skills are essential. Contrary to popular belief, fully compliant sites can still include rich design and pictures! (Of course, blind people can’t ‘see’ the pictures, but that doesn’t mean we have to exclude pictures, only to provide an alternative where one is needed.)
Accessibility versus usability?
There is no contradiction or competition between these two concepts – indeed, good usability is essential to ensure good accessibility. Usability means making a Web page ‘easy to use’ and fast to comprehend – it encompasses where items are positioned, and how they are labelled, for example. Accessibility and usability work hand in hand.