Weblogs: Web Accessibility

Accessibility Guidelines are harmful

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Beware of organisations producing or promoting their own accessibility guidelines. They are harming the web accessibility cause. If you are not using the W3C guidelines in its entirety, you are allowing potential barricades and obstacles to remain on your website.

Inaccessible Abbey National

Abbey National has relaunched its website, which it claims to be Abbey's first step in making our websites accessible to all. From their accessibility page:

Abbey has developed its own accessibility guidelines, which take into account standards and accessibility best practice from a number of sources.

I question the wisdom of a building society writing guidelines for what is essentially not a core competancy nor an area they have demonstrated past experience. Why not use the full W3C checklist?

Picking and choosing checkpoints

Picking and choosing a subset of checkpoints from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines is a surefire way of ensuring barriers remain for your disabled customers. And the Abbey website is a prime example of this failing.

We arrive at Abbey National's site help page from the Accessibility link on the front page of their website. Unfortunately, in a screen reader like IBM Homepage Reader, its a tiny page with one long link named:

services in alternatives formats website accessibility technical help

Blink and you miss the entire content on the page. Without a skip to content link it is impossible to determine where the content actually starts. Its far to easy to mistake the long text link as some sort of navigation.

Yet this one long link is in actual fact a list of three separate links:

The effect of missing checkpoints

There are three WCAG1.0 checkpoints violated to create this particular situation:

Checkpoint 3.6 [Priority 2]

Mark up lists and list items properly

Checkpoint 10.5 [Priority 3]

Until user agents (including assistive technologies) render adjacent links distinctly, include non-link, printable characters (surrounded by spaces) between adjacent links.

Checkpoint 11.1 [Priority 2]

Use W3C technologies when they are available and appropriate for a task and use the latest versions when supported.

In the case of using W3C technologies, Abbey National are failing to use HTML properly. HTML is a markup language that describes the structure of the content. Screen readers can take advantage of structure to aid navigation within a page.

Unfortunately, Abbey's accessibility page is completely oblivious to structured markup - and no non-W3C guideline will save them from being an accessibility obstacle.

The RNIB Guidelines

The RNIB have their own set of guidelines - based on the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Reading through them we can see, again, this is a subset of guidelines.

It is understandable that the RNIB are a visual disabilities related organisation, not a pan-disability organisation. We cannot expect the RNIB to understand the intricacies of motor-skills related disabilities, and learning-based disabilities. Yet the RNIB is a central part of the accessibility movement in the UK, and their 'See it Right' accreditation is a visible sign of accessibility compliance.

The RNIB support the use of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Yet they have their own set of guidelines. It is not clear why the RNIB believe they need their own guidelines.

Republishing only visual impairment related guidelines only makes the RNIB guidelines inferior to the W3C's. In that case, people should be actively discouraged from using the RNIB guidelines if they are offer nothing more than a subset of the W3C's.

If the RNIB are offering guidelines above and beyond the W3C guidelines, surely it is in the best interests of all blind and visually impaired users for the RNIB to raise these issues with the W3C, and clearly state why they feel the WCAG is not meeting the requirements of blind and visually impaired visitors.

At the moment, the RNIB are creating a confusing picture of web accessibility. The losers - as always - are people with disabilities trying to use the web.


The proliferation of multiple accessibility guidelines by organisations independant of the W3C is creating confusion in web accessibility. Each new set of guidelines waters down crucial information, and discards important concepts. What remains after the succession of Chinese whispers is a tick box developers can tick without understanding, or even bothering to care about, the problems they present to their own disabled customers.

Update: 1 November 2004

Patrick Lauke comments on the login button on the Abbey National homepage - it requires the use of Javascript just to access the online services, which is a clear breach of Checkpoint 6.3:

Ensure that pages are usable when scripts, applets, or other programmatic objects are turned off or not supported. If this is not possible, provide equivalent information on an alternative accessible page. [Priority 1]

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