Weblogs: Web Accessibility

Accessibility of text-only websites

Monday, January 05, 2004

I've spent some time investigating text-only websites; that is providing a "text-only" version of a website alongside an inaccessible website. In the UK, both the BBC (BBC via Betsie) and Norwich Union (Norwich Union via Betsie) have employed a Perl script called Betsie that takes an inaccessible page and "removes" accessibility problems. The intention is to return an accessible page.

I've written an article, titled "Accessibility of text-only websites" that investigates and analyses various methods of providing the text-only variant. The conclusion is that text-only websites via Betsie require an already existing and moderately accessible website - and the "accessible" result may be more inaccessible than the original website.

Updated 7 January 2004

There has been positive and constructive feedback toward this article, covering some points I have missed:

Gez Lemon, on his Juicy Studio blog, makes the following point:

One of the greatest myths of accessibility is that a text-only website is an accessible website. The myth is borne out of the fact that accessibility problems are often attributed to those with visual impairments. Accessibility covers a broad range of issues, of which visual impairments is just one area, albeit an important area.

Patrick Lauke, on AccessifyForum, comments:

Using betsie to improve accessibility of legacy content is fine, but it should not be seen as an end in itself. It must go hand in hand with a gradual, continuous effort to make all new content more accessible from the start, and redesign core section of the main site bit by bit. Once all content is available in some form of markup that cleanly separates presentation from content, and maybe even offers a variety of alternative styles, there is no need to have anything like betsie.

Updated 24 January 2004

Via Gez Lemon the discussion about my article has taken an interesting turn. Tim has written up his thoughts on UsableNet's LIFT Text Transcoder - a proprietary application running on top of an open source foundation which offers the same type of functionality as Betsie. His post mirrors a number of points in my article, and quotes Joe Clark's reaction:

This text-only utility is widely seen as the stupidest thing to come along all year. And people are falling for it!

Your site can itself be made accessible. You don't need a Ladies' Auxiliary to which you shunt disabled visitors.

UsableNet responded to the criticism, and acknowledged that it isn't a solution to an inaccessible website:

If the starting page is not accessible then deploying LIFT Text Transcoder might not solve all the accessibility issues. In fact LIFT Text Transcoder is not a complete solution for providing an accessible website.

Tim's comment in Gez's blog certainly reflects my concern. My primary motivation for writing the article was to tackle the belief that "just use Betsie" would be sufficient to make our website accessible:

My real fear is that Pointy Haired Bosses will see tools like BETSIE and LTT and think that Accessibility is something that you can just slap on your existing site with an automated tool "because we have to - the law says so"; all of which demonstrates no real commitment to provide a quality experience for all users of whatever ability.

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