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:
- Compliance with Legal Requirements: such as the amended UK Disability Discrimination Act.
- Exposure to more people: people with disabilities and seniors. We'll reach more people with the same service, that can reduce overheads which is a prime concern in a 1% world.
- Exposure to more situations: our services will work with TV based web browsers, and the approaching 4G mobile phones.
- Better design and implementation: Our services will be more customer focused.
- Cost Savings: One version of the web site will fit all sizes and audiences. The approaching Euro conversion will be easier with a fully accessible web site.
- Competitive Advantage in the Marketplace: by being the first completely accessible financial web site we'll have the advantage of targeting audiences others can't reach yet.
The accessibility myths
A number of myths have surfaced regarding integrating accessibility into a current web site.
- Accessibility is expensive: practice has shown that creating accessible web sites is no more time consuming than currently creating inaccessible web designs. With the appropriate guidelines we find that authoring accessible HTML is far easier since there is an immediate understanding of correct HTML usage.
- Accessibility means adding a text-only version: This pre-supposes that accessible content cannot be graphically pleasing, which when compared to the technique of augmentative authoring, the argument falls flat.
- Browsers for the blind can do all the work: Maximising accessibility involves the co-operation of a diverse number of groups. We are one part of that group, and by not working together with other groups we impede the quality and prospects that the Web offers us. Without an unambiguous semantic representation of our content we will consistently fail to deliver clear and informative content and services to all visitors and devices.
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.
Implementing accessibility in [Company Name]
Where does our web site fail?
- Navigation overkill: The main navigation contains 120 links, mostly to completely non-related pages - from a customer's view there is no obvious relationship between the ISA Product Information and a link to the Critical Illness Frequently Asked Questions, but we link from one to the other. This is a source of difficulty for users because they need to concentrate to prevent being distracted by these non-relevant links, a drain on resources and bandwidth. Navigation needs to be relevant, not an unabridged collection of links.
- Web site enhances the fractured organisational structure when it should be structured according to visitor tasks and roles. We focus more on ourselves than our customers, this doesn't create a conducive atmosphere of respect of our customers. Using department names as top menu items isn't what our visitors need, and doesn't make our information easier to find.
- Fixation of presentation over function and accessibility: The only way to achieve presentation requirements is to use markup techniques that result in a severe restriction in accessibility, especially in catering for obsolete browsers such as Netscape Navigator 4 and Internet Explorer 4, where the direction is to make the web site look the same in these browsers as in the modern Netscape Navigator 6 and Internet Explorer 6 browsers. We need to focus more on what we can do for visitors.
- Ignorance of platforms other than Windows. We have deliberately stopped supporting the Apple Macs, so effectively cut ourselves off from favourable reviews from the mainstream media.
- Key content hidden in PDFs: There is a mistaken belief that the content inside PDF files are safe from being edited by other people. As noted in the accessibility legal cases above, PDF's are considered an inaccessible file format. The large sizes of PDF's dissuades people from downloading and reading these important documents.
What needs to be done to make it accessible?
- Redesign the template so that the content isn't buried away deep in nested tables hidden from a linear-based browser (such as a speech browser). Making the content fully accessible should be our first step. This will create a stable foundation we can rebuild our web site on.
- Reduce the bloated menus to a single drop down per top level menu item (Seven drop down menus in total).
- Move disclaimer wording, copyright, links to security and privacy information to the footer notes. This will eliminate duplication of copyright notices, and collate all the legalese into one consistent location.
- Simplify the template away from inflexible pixel perfect design. This will make our web site more accessible to a wider range of displays (not limited to 800px wide displays and above). That way we have a very good chance of having a web site fit for use on digital TV, TV based browsers and 4G mobile phones. We need to remove effects that fix the size of a page.
- Separate the content from its presentation - this gives us the best chance of attaining complete accessibility today, tomorrow, next week, next year and in the future.
How should we implement the accessible web site?
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?
- Requirements that ignore accessibility issues, or favour the presentational nature at the cost of accessibility
- Lack of consistency throughout the web site (departmentalised and compartmentalised decisions)
- Decision makers not being aware of accessibility and its importance.
- Lack of resources skilled in accessibility and usability.
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.