Weblogs: Web Accessibility

The accessibility of tables for layout

Sunday, September 07, 2003

The major criticism of the RNIB website redesign is the use of nested tables for layout (as opposed to a largely CSS specified layout and style). The RNIB have defended themselves with the statement that nested layout tables are not inherently inaccessible. This position casts ambiguity as to the meaning of accessibility, and has been the source of many questions from readers of this, and other accessibility-focused blogs.

The levels of accessibility

When it comes to defining accessibility on the World Wide Web the foundation is laid down by the W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. It defines three levels of accessibility:

[Priority 1]
A Web content developer must satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it impossible to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint is a basic requirement for some groups to be able to use Web documents.
[Priority 2]
A Web content developer should satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it difficult to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint will remove significant barriers to accessing Web documents.
[Priority 3]
A Web content developer may address this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it somewhat difficult to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint will improve access to Web documents.

RNIB's accessibility guidelines

The RNIB base their "See It Right" certification on the WCAG, their specific guidelines cover all Priority 1 checkpoints and a selected number of Priority 2 checkpoints.

With the above WCAG definitions it is plain to see that a website that meets the RNIB's "See It Right" certification only meets Level A compliance. This means that all the problems that make it impossible for someone to access the content have been solved. By meeting only a handful of Priority 2 checkpoints, the RNIB solves some of the problems that make it difficult for people to access the content.

Accessibility of tables

Using tables for the purpose of layout makes it difficult for people with disabilities from accessing the content. This is a priority 2 problem. As such, the WCAG states: 3.3 Use style sheets to control layout and presentation. [Priority 2]. This particular checkpoint is not in the RNIB's accessibility guidelines, nor is it a checkpoint that the RNIB website actually meets.

Not meeting this particular checkpoint ensures that there is some difficulty in accessing the content. The RNIB do not seem overly concerned about this, but nevertheless that makes it impossible for the RNIB to deliver an accessible website that meets WCAG Level 2. The RNIB's position is that CSS not sufficiently robust, which is an argument refuted by web designers already delivering high profile standards compliant websites.

The benefit of webstandards on accessibility

Web designers using CSS for layout and style and having well-formed and valid HTML solve a large number of accessibility obstacles without needing to add in "accessibility-only" features. Their first standards compliant website is actually more accessibile than the RNIB final delivery (When measured against the WCAG checklist).

According to the RNIB themselves, they expended a significant amount of effort and time into getting their website as accessible as possible. Yet a web designer using webstandards does deliver a more accessible website in its very first iteration. Webstandards and well formed HTML produces a website that meets all Priority 1 checkpoints, and a significant number of Priority 2 checkpoints. That's before any accessibility options are actually added.

The benefit of the separation of content and presentation

Web standards revolves around the separation of content and presentation, and accessibility benefits from this. The RNIB's website is limited in this respect, and any problem with the design that hinders access to the content is an accessibility problem. For example, on the RNIB website, many people have complained about the inadequate margin between the designed border and the text that makes the text more difficult to read. The RNIB are changing the template to increase the margin - this was two months ago, and so far this has still not been corrected. All through that time the content has remained stuck with this accessibility problem, a problem relating to the design.

When a webstandards compliant design makes things difficult to access there is something a visitor can do while they wait for the problems to be resolved - switch off the design (in this case the stylesheet). Yes, the solution isn't ideal, yet it is a far better accessibility solution than leaving readers struggling until a fix is in place. (And a fix that can be done in well under two months!)

The work required irony

The RNIB website is a demonstration of how to build in accessibility on-top of an existing inaccessible design (Inaccessible in that it is difficult for a disabled person to access the content). It resembles a design where accessibility was added in as an after-thought, rather than leveraging the inherent accessibility of well-structured HTML.

Politics over common sense?

From a political perspective, the RNIB certainly don't have to care about the work required to address accessibility on websites, since they have the legal weight to their advantage. It is this "cost" argument that makes businesses unwilling to make their websites inaccessible, the RNIB have provided businesses with the most compelling proof of that. Had the RNIB built their website around web standards, they'd certainly be expending a lot less effort and cost, and provide an exemplary demonstration of how to design with accessibility in mind, rather than adding accessibility as an after-thought.

Certainly the RNIB have dropped the ball on this particular point, and they don't seem particularly bothered by it. If the ruling returned over the two cases the RNIB are pursuing over website accessibility is that the cost required for these websites to improve their accessibility is unreasonable, the RNIB only have themselves to blame.

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