Making the future accessible

We are all aware that providers of goods and services to the public have been obliged to make their buildings accessible since the adoption of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1999; but the requirement for websites to be equally accessible is not so widely recognised.
    
The Disability Equality Duty (2006) amended the existing legislation and specifies its application to the full range of public sector organisations – including NHS Trusts and Boards – and states categorically that providers must actively promote disability equality. This is a proactive and dynamic process, which requires organisations to incorporate their duty of care into everything that they do, by embracing an inclusive approach rather than ‘retro-fitting’ by making adjustments at the end.
    
The architects of the Act hoped that it would bring about a shift from a legal framework in which change relies on individual disabled people complaining about discrimination, to one in which the public sector itself becomes an agent of change.

Silver surfers
There are nearly ten million registered disabled people in the UK, an estimated further six million have dyslexia and many millions more have literacy difficulties. The growing number of so called ‘silver surfers’ (20 million UK residents are 50 or over) would suggest a corresponding increase in those with failing eyesight and conditions associated with old age, like arthritis. At the same time, there has been a huge shift in the uptake of internet use from the older generation – they currently comprise some 22 per cent of website visitors.
    
Web designers need to be aware of the vast numbers of disabled people who use specialist technologies to browse the Internet such as screen reading and voice recognition software, as well as many more who are reliant on the keyboard rather than the mouse.

User-friendly navigation
Whilst many suppliers are becoming increasingly nervous about the legislative climate and worried about what their obligations may or may not be, the bottom line is this: an accessible site is good for the public as a whole – whether disabled or ‘able-bodied’ consumers or end-users find them more ‘user-friendly’ and easier to navigate.
    
Providers of public services are being increasingly exhorted to find cost effective ways to deliver information and communicate with their target audiences. The online channel is inexpensive in comparison with more traditional methods of delivery and, by optimising accessibility, remarkably efficient too. You can deliver advice, support and training online, you can advertise, market and promote. You can disseminate information to large dispersed groups or strategically target individuals and you can refine, re-direct and re-formulate your message as often as you like, with virtually no cost implication, relative to other methods of communication.

Competitive advantage
The business case is compelling if one considers that an accessible site can deliver a 35 per cent ‘usability bonus’1 for every visitor - a factor that translates directly into competitive advantage and time efficiency for the provider. When we seek services or information online, we are seeking critical functionality – namely speed and efficiency – not a life-changing experience. Accessible sites are simply easier and more intuitive to use: they improve productivity for everyone.
    
The Disability Discrimination Act demands that organisations must deliver goods and services via their websites to disabled people on an equal basis to other visitors and that they must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to achieve this objective. In other words, a website must be as accessible as a shop. Whilst no one is suggesting anyone would knowingly impose a ‘technological lock-out’ on disabled customers, there is still much room for improvement as AbilityNet’s quarterly e-nation reports unequivocally show.

Prevailing accessibility
We have assessed a variety of sectors including online banks, supermarkets, retailers, utilities, telecoms and newspapers for the usability and accessibility of their websites. Using a series of both manual checks and automated tools, we evaluate whether the needs of visitors with a vision impairment, dyslexia or physical problem making use of a mouse difficult or impossible, are met adequately. Disappointingly, we have found that most sites fail to meet the minimum accessibility standards required for those end users not using the standard screen, mouse and keyboard set-up.
    
It seems that, despite the legislation, cyberspace can contain just as many obstacles as the physical world. The Disability Rights Commission investigation supports our findings and suggests that over 80 per cent of sites fail to satisfy a base level of accessibility.
    
It is not surprising to note that the same survey shows that only 9 per cent of website developers claim any real understanding of access issues. Basic training in the fundamental principles of accessibility, such as that provided by AbilityNet, should be a prerequisite for such professionals and would prevent some of the most commonly encountered obstacles recurring. Once a site is built, it is a lot more difficult, time consuming and expensive to rectify the faults. It’s much easier not to incorporate them in the first place.

Accessible & professional

Catering to the needs of ‘non-standard’ end-users need be neither expensive nor time consuming. AbilityNet does not encourage the development of so called ‘access’ sites, which run in tandem with a ‘mainstream’ version. This tendency is divisive, expensive and ultimately unnecessary. Accessibility should be a ‘win-win’ situation for everyone.
    
Tesco originally took the decision to create an alternative ‘access’ site and found it so popular with non-disabled shoppers (taking in excess of £13m per year) that they decided to re-launch their main site with accessibility at its core. Now they need only maintain one site that is not only as inclusive as possible, but every single visitor is enjoying the significant usability bonus an accessible site provides.

The tendering process
Then goods and services are being delivered by a commercial contractor, those managing the procurement or commissioning procedure on behalf of the Trust or Board need to make sure that the authority is meeting its disability equality duties. In many contexts, the accessibility of the suppliers’ website will be a relevant consideration during the tendering process. Remember, your website is your shop window, and that NHS decision makers and budget holders are as likely to have special needs when it comes to internet access as anyone else.

Abilitynet’s five point strategy

  • Ensure that pages are uncluttered, consistently laid out and use the simplest appropriate language.
  • Ensure that visitors can easily choose their own colour, text size and screen resolution, and that each page behaves well when these changes are made.
  • Ensure that your pages conform to the global standards of the World Wide Web Consortium – (www.w3.org/wai) and the BSI guidelines on website commissioning contained in the PAS78 and the soon to be issued BS8878 (AbilityNet was on both expert authoring panels).
  • Ensure that content is accessible and usable to disabled people in reality by testing with a range of the most widely encountered assistive technologies such as screen reading and voice recognition software.
  • Make efforts to ensure on-going accessibility.

Top five sins
Choose a site at random and chances are it will present significant barriers to accessibility, the most common of which are:

  • Images have no text tooltips – so vital for blind users.
  • Text is ‘hard-coded’, so that users cannot choose their own size or style for greater readability. 
  • Videos, animations or interactive elements (such as Flash) are not accessible and have no alternatives, and often add distracting movement to a page that cannot easily be stopped.
  • Use of JavaScript (mini programs embedded in the page) not properly tested for accessibility. Disabled people and those using older browsers or mobile phones often find they cannot  use a shopping cart or register for an account on many websites.
  • The site requires the use of a mouse – keyboard users often find that they cannot use drop-down menus, click buttons or use Flash.

Notes
1 The Web: Access and Inclusion for Disabled People – DRC Press Office or http://www.drc-gb.org/publicationsandreports/report.asp

For more information
For further information and advice, visit www.abilitynet.org.uk or ring 01926 312847 and speak with a member of the Accessibility Services Team.

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