Weblogs: Web Accessibility

WaSP on BBC accessibility

Friday, September 19, 2003

The BBC gave web accessibility some much needed coverage in a news article titled "Website owners face prosecution" by Andrew Sinclair. It contains some useful insights into the surfing habits of the disabled, with the backdrop of the Disability Discrimination Act clearly being the key issue.

WaSP "accessibility" comments

Molly Holzschlag with her WaSP hat on has critiqued the compliancy of that BBC article. She's focused in on the comment: "Some get it right: the BBC website is considered to be one of the best for people with disabilities . . . ". Although I feel her critique misses the mark.

Yes, the BBC website isn't completely valid. Yet, the confusion between the DocType and the actual markup offers negligible reduction in accessibility. The actual content is being delivered using the content type of text/html, and since no mainstream browser currently correctly supports XHTML delivered as application/xml+xhtml the browsers will handle the XHTML based markup in its usual HTML Tossed Tag Salad fashion - again with a negligible reduction in accessibilty.

Web standards is not web accessibility

The point that is being missed is that using web standards does not guarantee an accessible websites. Yes, web standards and well structured markup allows web designers to deliver sites that on average are more accessible than the current plethora of presentational markup websites. Yet, to meet level A priority does not require a completely valid website, and does not require CSS for layout.

Rather than point out the technical problems in the BBC website that seem to have no relevance to basic accessibility (Priority 1), why not look at the real accessibility problems of the BBC website.

The Bobby test

Molly refers to Bobby, and reports "Problems galore from Priority Level 1 on down". Actually Bobby only refers to two problems:

So one problem which results in a non-working form (which doesn't work without javascript), and the other looks to be a red herring. Its when people actually use the website that shows up real accessibility problems.

Actual accessibility testing

A month ago I spent a few days playing around with IBM's Homepage Reader, and the BBC was the main site I used at that time. Accessibility wise, the BBC is usable, but there are some practical difficulties in using the website:

The above problems are more related to accessibility, and can be remedied rather quickly and the accessibility of the website will improve. (Considering that the BBC is a template based website running off mod_perl it should be an easy job confirming that the skip to content links are there right at the top.)

Web standards complement web accessibility

Please don't mistake web standards as a mandatory requirement of basic Accessibility. This is a misnomer and serves only as counter-productive to the aims of web accessibility. Web standards allows sites to reach a far higher level of accessibility, yet is not the only way to meet the requirements of basic accessibility. Yes, use the arguments that web standards is a better way of tackling the accessibility problem, but don't assume web standards compliancy is a given.

Accessibility at the BBC

And I'm in full agreement with Molly's last paragraph, so I'll just quote it:

The BBC does get big points for having eliminated a lot of presentational markup such as font tags and other crimes against markup typically seen on news and portal sites. In general they've done an okay job of lightening up their use of tables, too. With a little more care to detail, reduction (or elimination) of tables, and the addition of simple accessibility features via markup, the BBC site could quite easily become a flagship of transitional, accessible, global, and attractive design.

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