Why is web accessibility important to you?

By Matt Williams

The Equality Act 2010 and its predecessor the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) created a legal duty for businesses and organisations to ensure their services are available to everyone regardless of disability.

Building engineers are well aware of the implications of the Equality Act 2010 and its predecessor the Disability Discrimination Act (the DDA) in their day to day professional life. Physical barriers that hinder access to buildings and facilities are often very plain to see, as are the remedial actions taken to remove these barriers. Professional engineers have a great understanding of accessible design of buildings, and of the actions needed to remove barriers.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (the DDA) made it unlawful to provide a service that is not accessible to everybody. This has continued with the Equality Act 2010. It is irrelevant whether the service is provided with or without payment. The legislation is clearly applicable to information and services supplied via the internet.

The implications for your organisation of having a website that is accessible to disabled visitors is not just that you are conforming with the law. You will be building a reputation as a company that cares, and delivering your message to a significantly wider audience.

Web accessibility legislated in the UK

There is an area of your professional life affected by the Equality Act you are less likely to be aware of, web accessibility. Your business or organisation almost certainly has a website, and unless you have taken deliberate steps to ensure that it is accessible then you may be contravening the Equality Act.

Web accessibility is about designing sites for everyone, independent of who they are or how they access the Internet. It specifically addresses the needs of disabled people, giving them the opportunity to use your website.

It is irrelevant whether services are provided with or without payment, and the Equality Act is clearly applicable to information and services supplied via the Internet. Indeed, the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) has started threatening inaccessible website owners with legal action if they do not improve accessibility. This is a major watershed for the web, and at last, disabled people have their basic rights acknowledged.

Aside from legal reasons there are moral and business reasons why an accessible website is a fundamentally good idea for your organisation. An accessible website enhances your reputation, differentiating you positively from your competitors.

Why has web accessibility become a significant issue?

The Equality Act is only one factor that contributes to the importance of web accessibility:

  • An early successful action over web accessibility (Barry Maguire vs Sydney Olympics Organising Committee) won the litigant $20,000 in damages, and the legal and subsequent web development costs ran into millions. Subsequently, AOL settled out of court in an action brought by the US National Federation of the Blind. The recent actions by the RNIB against some inaccessible website owners in the UK means the threat of legal action is very real.
  • The UK government funded Disabled Rights Commission (DRC) is empowered by the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999, to instigate formal investigations to eliminate discrimination and encouraging good practice in the treatment of disabled people. The DRC are currently carrying out accessibility testing on over 1,000 UK public and private sector websites and will soon publish a “name and shame” report.
  • Through their UK online programme the government aims to give everyone access to the internet by 2005, with all government departments fully online. The use of the web to deliver governmental services is a major paradigm shift, with the web now a predominant method for distributing information, rivalling TV, radio and paper-based communication. The advantage of web technology is that it allows for a massive repository of dynamic information to be made available to everyone, if that information is delivered in an accessible form.

That's the big picture, but why is web accessibility important to me?

We have dealt with the legal issues, but is there a valid business case for accessibility? Certainly, the maths is simple. The larger the number of people that are able to access your website means the larger the number of people that will utilise your website. This translates to a more efficient distribution of information for corporate, governmental and educational sites and an increase in turnover for e-commerce sites.

The Disability Rights Commission summed up the business argument in a most compelling way: “There are 8.5 million disabled people in Britain with a combined annual spending power of £40 billion. People aged over 50 have a combined annual income in excess of £160 billion. Yet, inclusive design - the idea of reaching this vast market by making products as easy to use as possible for as many people as possible - is still not considered worthwhile by most designers, manufacturers and engineers”.

If your website does not take into account the needs of disabled people then you are excluding a massive part of your potential audience who suffer from mild disabilities, such as colour blindness, poor sight, arthritis and learning difficulties. These people can be excluded from your website because of inaccessible design just as much as people with more severe disabilities.

What do we need to think about when we are considering the access of disabled people to our websites?

It is important to think of disability as a spectrum, with varying types and levels of disability.

Visual impairments

The Internet is primarily a visual medium, and as such presents many problems to those with impaired vision. For example:

  • Colour blindness affects between 8% and 10% of the male population in the UK, and for these people insufficient contrast between foreground and background colours, such as for the text that appears on your website, can render your content unreadable.
  • Small text sizes limit those with restricted vision. Most Internet browser software allows visitors to resize the text that appears on web pages to make it more readable, but a large number of websites are constructed in such a way that this functionality is turned off.
  • If your website provides prompts and navigation tools such as menu systems only in visual format and without alternative text it will cause huge problems for a blind person using screen reader software. There are many other factors that need to be considered if your website is to be used effectively by blind people, because the software that they use relies on websites being built in accordance with best practice.

Mobility impairments

People with mobility impairments may lack the dexterity or hand-eye coordination to use a mouse and they therefore rely on the keyboard or some form of assistance device. With this in mind, website navigation systems should be easy to use and identify. A simple test is to check whether you can fully use your own website without using a mouse, using the tab key on your keyboard, or access keys (where the keys on your keyboard are assigned special actions), alone.

Cognitive impairments

People with cognitive or learning impairments such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder require a logical order for content, well presented text written in clear sentences and graphical icons to aid navigation.

Hearing impairments

Audio and video content is used increasingly on the Internet and this makes the inclusion of text transcripts of any file that would otherwise rely on sound very important. Those with hearing impairments will then be able to follow the action.

How is accessibility achieved?

If only there were a set of simple rules to follow then website owners and their designers would have a simple task to make their websites accessible. Unfortunately though, there are no absolute guidelines. However, the industry has a widely acknowledged standards setting body, the W3C. This organisation is responsible for the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) which in May 1999 launched the first comprehensive set of web accessibility guidelines on which popular accessibility tools such as 'Bobby' base their judgements.

The WAI accessibility guidelines set out three priority levels to which a website should aspire. The first of these, level 'A', is essential for basic accessibility and a failure to implement these guidelines means potential users will be prevented from meaningful interaction and run the risk of falling foul of the Equality Act.

The second level, 'Double-A', offers solutions to further stumbling blocks and the third level, 'Triple-A' demonstrates a real commitment to accessibility excellence.

Many observers believe that 'Triple-A' compliance is either unachievable, or compromises other requirements of a corporate web presence such as brand impact and design. At Ecru we believe that a 'Double-A' website that incorporates a managed additional set of facilities is likely to achieve the best balance of design and accessibility although each of our websites is built to individual requirements.

Ecru and accessibility - practicing good design

Ecru undertake a process that values consistency, flexibility and usability whilst never neglecting the creative urge. By thinking foremost about taking an inclusive approach we do not end up ramming accessibility down website visitor's throats. We create websites that have life and vitality and that can also be viewed by the widest audience possible.

Accessible creativity

There is a tendency for some accessible websites to be text-heavy - though this is symptomatic of a lack of thought rather than a consideration of a disabled person's needs. Ecru believe that accessibility can be used to assist and enhance a user's experience of your website.

Building a website to satisfy the needs of someone with a cognitive impairment should not adversely affect the experience of someone with a mobility impairment and vice versa. Similarly, a user with good vision should not suffer due to modifications made for someone with a visual impairment. Ecru offers the thought and creativity necessary to ensure that every change made to a website is a positive change - for everyone.

Usability and accessibility

Accessibility is rightly regarded as being a part of the wider issue of usability. Usability is the design of navigation, content and structure so that all users can carry out tasks effectively. In the development of an accessible website, many usability issues are touched on. Usability requires a deep organisation and structure of information, while accessibility involves removing barriers to that information.

Corporate barriers to accessibility

If your business supports the concept of accessibility in its widest context, then the implementation of an accessible web presence is a logical conclusion. We have found that obtaining a statement of intent is the strongest driver in triggering web accessibility projects. However, not all initiatives start at the top, they can also occur as a result of informed thinking by individuals within businesses or organisations who have the vision to understand how they can include disabled people within their business strategy to mutual advantage.

The most gratifying phenomenon is the snowball effect of accessibility as its implications become understood within large organisations. Managers and board members are quick to understand the value of siding with the strong arguments that the web accessibility initiative provides.

Web accessibility is vital to those with disabilities and vital for achieving strong usable websites. It is fundamental to the creation of a better Internet.

Contact Ecru right now to talk about accessibility and your website, or call us on 01702 479 677 for a friendly chat.

We create websites that have life and vitality and that can also be viewed by the widest audience possible.

Matt Williams, Managing Director of Ecru Matt Williams, Managing Director of Ecru

This article was written by Matt Williams, Managing Director of Ecru. If you have any questions regarding this article or would like to discuss your next web site project with Matt please call him on 01702 479 677 or get in touch via our contact form.

Is your website accessible to disabled people? Email us or call us on 01702 479 677 to discuss how we can help you.