Accessibility within [Company Name]

[Company Name] has taken some steps toward making services accessible to a significant audience in the physical world. We provide, on request, documentation printed in extra large text. We ensure that all employees have access to the places and services necessary to fulfil our roles within the scope of work. In short, we ensure that the people working with us and the people we provide a service for are not limited in their relationship with us.

We, as a company, fail to translate these positive steps into an accessibility strategy on the World Wide Web. We consistently insist on an inaccessible presentation which complies to an internal branding standard, and this reduces accessibility outside Internet Explorer 4+ and Netscape 4+ to virtually zero.

The global picture

What is accessibility?

Accessibility is a quality that makes a web site more operable, more usable to more people, maximising availability of information, knowledge and services regardless of barriers such as disability, language, location, culture, and device. It embodies the idea that everyone has the right to information and that everyone has the right to be included in society.

Accessibility is not about building web sites that work in Netscape Navigator 4, Internet Explorer 4 and above. This browser-dependant strategy isn't sufficient to make our information and services accessible to a larger audience. Making web sites "work" in a limited number of browsers doesn't create accessibility, but prevents it. Making web sites "look" the same in different browsers isn't accessibility but rather a barrier to full accessibility.

Accessibility is a civil right - it is the right to participate within a society on an equal footing with everyone else. By not treating everyone as equal introduces discriminatory practices.

What is web accessibility?

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. -- Tim Berners-Lee

The strengths of the World Wide Web, which makes it unique as a medium of communication, is that it isn't limited to a visual-only output. A correctly designed web site would communicate effectively aurally as well as visually.

In a novel-based industry accessibility is achieved by making multiple copies of the same material, in differing formats. So an interested reader could obtain a hard-back or soft-cover version of a novel, readers with less than perfect vision could obtain the same book printed using an extra-large type. Some people prefer to listen to the story, so would purchase the narrated CD version. Blind readers have the option of the already available CD, or they could also opt for a braille copy, or have a friend willing to read it aloud. Best-seller books tend to be translated into other languages (or simplified versions of English), and sometimes they are converted into block-buster movies with simplified plots and dialogue. There is a considerable expense in achieving accessibility in this particular industry.

The World Wide Web can accomplish all the challenges faced above within a single web document. We only have to produce one web page, according to a set of guidelines, that will make this one page more accessible than all the novel-based formats.

The legal history of accessibility

The first major legal case involving web site accessibility was filed against the City of San Jose by the administrators of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1996. The case revolved around a City Commissioner, who was blind complained that she was unable to access City Council documents as part of her role because the documents were published in an inaccessible PDF format. The court found that the Commissioner had been discriminated against, even if the webmaster was unaware that the format used was inaccessible.

The profile of accessibility was raised in Maguire vs Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games in mid-1999. Mr Maguire, a blind Australian citizen could not book a ticket using his Braille browser on the Olympic Games web site. He filed a complaint against SOCOG using the Australian Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) of 1992.

The court found that SOCOG was guilty of discriminating against Maguire, since under the DDA Online information and services must be accessible to people with disabilities. The court accepted the argument that booking tickets online constituted a service.

Another high profile case was National Federation for the Blind (NFB) vs America Online (AOL), 4 November 1999 where nine individual blind people who wanted to sign up with AOL found that they could not sign up without the help of a sighted person. Only after the complaint was filed did AOL start fixing the accessibility issues found on its services. On 26th July 2000 (the 10th anniversary of the ADA) the case was dismissed by mutual agreement with the NFB reserving the right to renew their ADA action against AOL.

The benefits of accessibility

A fully accessible web site gives the following advantages:

The accessibility myths

A number of myths have surfaced regarding integrating accessibility into a current web site.

What the web is and isn't

One of the biggest impediments to accessibility derives from a fundamental misunderstanding as to what the World Wide Web really is. We ignore its underlying strengths and reduce the web to a shallow interpretation of the print media.

The web isn't a visual-only medium like a product brochure, it is a medium that can represent itself aurally such as speech browsers. The web's foundation is textual and can be represented as a sequence of text characters, this leaves the flexibility of representations down to the visitor, using his preferred mechanism. There's nothing that forces the visitor to be human, either. The visitor can be a program like a search engine, or even a program that represents a future-visitor looking for a reason to include our site on his next tour of the Internet. It could be a customer using his new 4G mobile phone to check that his last mortgage payment has been made, or checking whether [Company Name]'s press release section contains any information that would convince him to buy our shares. His mobile phone might not need a screen, since he is already using a pair of earphones instead.

The visual presentation of the World Wide Web isn't the most important thing, especially if it's implementation interferes with the accessibility of every device except graphical PC-based browsers. We've consistently enforced visual "branding" rules into our web site that has most certainly degraded accessibility to the limited range of browsers that we support. These are the tradeoffs that we, as graphical browser users, don't see, but any user outside the supported browser range endures immense frustration forcing them to leave our site in sheer annoyance.

The branding rules implemented for our web site are based on the misunderstanding that all browsers display a web page in the exact same way (like printing off two copies of a paper document). This misunderstanding is an extension of the belief that the web is an inferior version of the print medium, with the restriction to the graphical-only display. This misunderstanding creates anti-accessibility rules such as fixed font-sizes, restricted and web-incompatible corporate colour schemes, and Javascript dependant navigation. The result is a web site completely dependant on Javascript, nested tables and Cascading Style Sheets. With these dependencies accessibility, as a whole, is impossible. And because our visitors and potential customers lose out - we lose out too.

Implementing accessibility in [Company Name]

Where does our web site fail?

What needs to be done to make it accessible?

How should we implement the accessible web site?

Pages need to be dynamically generated so that we can produce a customised version suitable for use on Netscape 4 browsers (tabled layout), but deliver a completely accessible document to any other user agent (browsers, search engines, microwave ovens and mobile phones, etc.). This user agent will then decide whether the document requires styling, if it does, then we deliver the style sheet and Javascript to that user agent.

This results in modern browsers displaying a designed CSS look, while other not-completely compliant browsers that we don't currently support receive a page they can render in their default way. Our "supported browser" users don't suffer and notice no degradation of presentation, while our previously cut-off visitors experience full accessibility to the content without the features their browser doesn't support.

This is referred to as the "embrace and enhance" technique. Embrace all browsers and devices that use the world wide web, and enhance the experience for those using our list of supported browsers.

What stands in the way of making the web site accessible?


If [Company Name] wants to survive as a successful business on the web and the 1% world, it needs to focus on maximising the value of its web site. By making the web site completely accessible, we grow our target market by inclusion of previously discriminated groups such as people with disabilities and the elderly. They have the right to participate in our online society, and it would be a considerable advantage for [Company Name] to recognise their rights as equal to others. The goodwill value of the press coverage will highlight [Company Name]'s customer first attitude, which will send a clear signal to other potential customers that we treat our customers with the respect they deserve - and equally so.

We should be taking proactive steps to ensure we don't discriminate against the disabled and the elderly. The advantages of being accessible to this market are substantial. It would be a great pity to [Company Name]'s image if the only way we would consider making our web site accessible to those affected portions of our audience was purely because it was what was required of us by the amended Disability Discrimination Act.