Website Accessibility: Making websites accessible to disabled people
I wanted to talk to you today about Web Accessibility, because it is an area of web development that is becoming increasingly important these days, and all businesses have at least one website, often several.
I work as a short term contractor in web development, so every few months I am checking out the job boards once again for my next contract, and I have noticed, over the last 12 months, how accessibility experience is being specified as a requirement more and more frequently in the job ads for web designers and developers.
So what is it?
Web Accessibility is about making websites, especially commercial ones, available to disabled people with all kinds of disability.
About 15% of the global population are disabled in one way or another. That's about a billion people worldwide. In this country the figure is 12 million people. Not all of them have a disability that hinders their use of computers and websites, but a high proportion of them do. So accessibility of all kinds has become the subject of legislation by both the our own government and the European Union.
What isn't so well known, however, is that there are international standards covering accessibility on the Web that all websites need to follow.
You may have come across the term "WCAG". It stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These are the international standards for web accessibility. (Some people call it the WuhCag, though I don't like that - to me that sounds a bit strange).
It is a very long series of documents that contain the standards for web developers to work to to make their work available by everyone, including disabled people.
However, it's worth noting that we all benefit from these standards, because a website that follows the standards is easier to use for everyone, not just disabled people.
Now the WCAG has obtained a level of acceptance world wide that is really quite amazing. Countries across the world, from America and Canada, most of Europe, Australia, and various Asian countries, have all made web access for the disabled a matter of law. If we could only obtain the same level of cooperation on other international matters the world would be a safer and better place!
Types of Disability
- but before we look at what to do about it, let's just consider what types of disability affect computer use
What groups of disabled people are there, and what they have to do to use computers and experience a website.
Most disabled people use "assistive technology". That's hardware or software that enables them to operate their computer and navigate websites.
For instance, blind people use either a screen reader that speaks all the page content aloud, while people who are both deaf and blind use a Braille reader. This is a piece of hardware that converts input to Braille, using pins that instantly popup to create the dots of a Braille readout. These devices also help the blind person to fill up on-screen forms and interact with a website in other ways.
So just to list the main groups of disabled people, and what they use to experience a website, we have these:
- Blind people - screen readers
- deaf-blind - Braille readers
- people with poor sight - screen magnifiers
- and that includes the elderly though they may not use any assistive devices at all
- colour blind - various types of colour blindness
- deaf people and people with impaired hearing - they can't hear videos without captions
- people with poor motor control who cannot use a mouse with sufficient accuracy - keyboard
- people with crippled arms or hands - sip and puff devices operated by mouth, etc
- people with learning disabilities - plain English (eg gov.uk)
That's quite a range of software and hardware, and groups of people. But they will all have major problems on websites that don't follow the rules set out by the WCAG.
A Celebrity Example
- Let's just think of one well known celebrity.
You all know Professor of Stephen Hawking, the world famous physicist who is almost totally paralysed due to motor neurone disease. At one stage of his illness he used a switch which he could press with his finger. However his disability has now progressed to the point that he can no longer operate that. He now uses an infra-red sensor on his glasses that monitors his face.
That is linked to software on his computer that displays the alphabet and numeric digits on the screen. A cursor skips through all the letters, and he moves his cheek muscle or blinks when it reaches the one he wants to use. As you can imagine, that's very slow, but it does enable him to contact the outside world. He uses it to write his lectures and television speeches.
Unfortunately there are far too many websites that Stephen Hawking can't access, simply because they have not been made accessible to disabled people.
So Why Accessibility on Our Websites?
- So Why implement Accessibility on Our Websites if we are a commercial company?
There are several reasons for commercial companies to make their websites accessible. They include:
- the moral reason - it helps members of society more disadvantaged than ourselves
- the legal reason - because the Law in the UK says so
Then there are several other reasons that simply make good commercial sense:
- it improves sales
- it enhances your business's reputation
- it makes your website easier to use for all your users, not just the disabled
- it improves your website's search engine rankings
I'll go through each of these separately in a moment.
First though, some of you will work for companies that want to make their website accessible for the first reason, some for the second, and some for the remaining reasons. It doesn't really matter a huge amount in the end why you do it. What matters is the end result, producing something that will give blind and other disabled people a life.
It does help, though, if all the technicians involved have the welfare of their fellow human beings at the front of their mind, not simply the matter of following rules to achieve regulatory compliance. It usually improves the end result.
The first Reason - Helping Disabled People
- So let's take the first reason - helping disabled people.
It's only right that all disabled people should have to have the same access as everybody else to:
- government and private benefits
- and all the products and services from the commercial world
This helps everyone, not just the disabled, because it means disabled people can take a full and contributory part in society.
It also means society can spend less time and expense helping them, because they can achieve what they want themselves.
But it doesn't work if disabled people can't access that online information in the first place!
I have a quote you might like to hear from Julie Howell of the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) in 2003:
The blind and partially sighted net users that I have spoken to are overwhelmingly positive about the Internet, and the web in particular. It is so liberating to be able to shop without asking a sighted friend to help, or to read the news or a book without assistance from a sighted person. Even the ability to check a train time online makes such a huge difference to a blind manager who wants to arrange his own travel to a meeting.[http://www.miswebdesign.com/resources/articles/julie-howell-rnib-accessibility.html]
The Legal Reason - Equality Act 2010
Then, of course, we have the legal reason. This comes from the Equality Act 2010:
Section 29(1) of the Act has this somewhat amusing statement:
A person ... concerned with the provision of a service to the public or a section of the public (for payment or not) must not discriminate against a person requiring the service by [...wait for it!!...] not providing the person with the service.
I hope that is quite clear to everyone! One of the more interesting efforts of our legislators!
The regulations behind the law confirm that any website that provides information or a product is providing a service. That bit about information covers just about every website there is. So this legislation says that any business website must be accessible to the disabled, or it constitutes unlawful discrimination and the owner can be sued.
So far, there have only been a handful of legal cases over accessibility, all sponsored by the RNIB. And they were all resolved out of court. But they all resulted in the site owner having to upgrade their site to make it accessible.
In one of the most recent cases the RNIB sued the airline BabyBMI in 2012 over their website. They came to an agreement out of court for the site to be upgraded, but soon after that the airline went bust, so that solved the problem. But it wasn't cause and effect!
In Australia in the year 2000 a blind man successfully sued the Sydney Olympics organising committee over their Olympic website.
But that's enough about the legal side. Lets think of any other benefits that may come from making your website accessible.
It improves sales
You remember I said earlier, there are 12 million disabled people in Britain. Now they have a total estimated spending power of £120 billion pounds. If you manage a company or run a business, there's a question to ask there. Do you want some of that money, or do you want your competitors to have it?
To take a very simple example, does your company's website use a CAPTCHA? (You know, where you have to decipher a string of distorted characters in an image onscreen to prove you are at least half human?) Right there, straight away, you're losing 5% of your possible customers! Because no blind person can get past one of them.
The solution, for blind customers, is to have an accessible alternative test for them to do (usually an audio version).
Thinking at a more general marketing level, if your website is accessible to disabled people they will have an interest in it out of all proportion to your place in the ordinary marketplace. Many disabled people use only a small fraction of the internet - the portion that has so far been made accessible to them. So if they come across your website, for whatever reason, and you have made it accessible, your site will immediately be of great interest to them - for the same reason climbers climb Everest, because its there for them!
If they want to buy that kind of product they will buy from you, not from some supplier whose website they cannot even navigate. Or if they discuss that kind of product with other people, they will recommend yours, simply because it's the only one they know, they couldn't see the others.
If you are the first one in your business sector to become accessible, you will corner that particular chunk of the market.
Your Company's Reputation
- Then, what about enhancing your image?
If you advertise that your website is accessible (and providing it truly is accessible, it is not just a polite fiction) this creates an image of an ethical and socially responsible organization. If you have clearly taken the trouble to make your website accessible, it suggests you are a reliable organisation, one that's safe to deal with. It gives potential customers a warm feeling about it.
Another good reason - Easier To Use
- It makes your website easier to use by all people.
Making your website accessible to disabled people is done using methods that make it easier for everyone to use. And clearly, the easier your website is for everyone, the more you'll benefit. You'll get:
- more sales
- more market interest
- more potential customers.
Just another small example to illustrate this: how often do you find it tiresome reading pages on a website that are displayed in a shade of grey and maybe in a small font as well? Sometimes it's so bad you lose interest and leave the site?
Or, how often do you click on text or images thinking there is probably a link there, but you can't see where the link is because it hasn't been highlighted in any way? It takes you 2 or 3 clicks to find it, and sometimes you find there isn't a link there after all?
If your web developers and designers follow Accessibility standards of the WCAG, your users won't have those kinds of problem on your website.
- and finally, how does it help your websites rankings in the search engines?
Let's consider the search engine crawlers and robots that look round your website to give it a ranking, which decides how easily web users can find the site. If you think about it, a web crawler has most of the possible human disabilities all wrapped up in one neat package! They are:
- they have cognitive disabilities of all kinds
- their learning ability is very limited
- they can't use a mouse
- they can't use the keyboard
All search engine crawlers can do is read text. They can only start at the top of a web page and read text down it until they get to the bottom. That's all they can do on a page.
So you might expect that anything we do to make a website more accessible to blind, deaf, and paralysed people, people with poor motor control, or people with learning disabilities, is also likely to help the search engine robots and get you a better ranking in the search engines. This is what actually happens in fact.
It works, because disabled people are helped, primarily, by converting all non-text content into simple text, and by identifying that text so that assistive technology such as screen readers know where to find it. But, once you have done that, search engine crawlers can find and recognise the same text. Google knows the rules for accessibility as well as anyone. So they program those rules into their web crawlers so they can find the maximum amount of content.
So, for example, if you create headings on the page use the correct HTML heading elements, as the WCAG requires because those headings can then be given to users of assistive technology, rather than just entering ordinary text with a larger size of font, then the search engines see those headings and add ranking points to what those headings contain, because they know that a heading defines the purpose of a page. Google and Bing can ascertain more easily what your site is about.
I expect most of you have heard how, last year, Google introduced a new policy of boosting their rankings of websites that work well on mobile phones. They did that because so many (50%) web users now surf from their mobile phones, and Google naturally wants those people to see their advertising.
Will Google maybe one day do the same for sites that make themselves accessible to disabled people?
No, they won't! Why not? Because it has already been done, years ago. Websites that are accessible to the disabled are already easier for Google to crawl and understand.
So there are huge benefits to making your company websites accessible.
Example - Alternative Text on Images
Lets take another example of how this works.
Blind people cannot see pictures, so Accessibility standards require that the web developer must provide alternative text for every image and photograph on their site, to explain what the image is showing. Blind people must be given the same information that sighted people get from an image.
But search engine robots cannot understand images either; they cannot read the pixels and work out what is in the picture [although, having said that, Facebook announced just a couple of weeks ago that it is experimenting with that technology in a very simple way. But it will be years before that becomes really effective in fully understanding images].
So if your entire Home page is a single image, or a carousel of images flipping from one to the next as many home pages are, and often the only explanatory text is part of the image itself, then Google will come to the page, look around, and find nothing! It will get nothing at all from the most important page on your website!
But if you follow the WCAG and add plenty of alternative text for blind people, to tell them what the images are showing, then all that text will be picked up and indexed by the search engine robots.
If your text is helpful and informative to blind people, and fully explains the images to them, it will do the same for the search engines! And that raises your rankings.
Another Example - Videos
Take another example, videos. When search engine crawlers come to your website to index them, they don't stop for an hour or two happily playing all your videos! They're there for a second, then they're gone. So if you create a wonderful half hour video explaining your product to potential customers, and what to use it for - so far as Google is concerned, it never existed.
But the WCAG requires the supplying of captions and a transcript of any videos on your site, to explain it all fully to blind people.
And it also requires that those transcripts do not just record the words spoken, but also explain any writing or demos shown on a white board or in animations.
So if put the full text of the dialog into captions for blind people, Google will snap it up in a fraction of a second! They will index it, publish it, and include it in their assessment of your site ranking.
The cost Need Not Be Great!
Ok, so how expensive is all this going to be for a company?
The good news is that the cost of website accessibility need not be very great at all. It does not need huge changes to web programming. Mostly it just needs web developers to follow a number of rules and good practices as they do their work.
One very easy way to assist in this is to give them a set of coding guides for accessibility, in the same way that many companies already have programming guides in other areas of computer programming. I am working on such a set of coding standards myself at the moment, though it will be some while before it gets published. Slowly, as accessibility is being taken on board by corporate managements, more developers are learning the skills, and as they do so the task will become easier.
It does also require testers to perform more tests, so there is a bit of an overhead there. And initial training is, as always, needed. It's also helpful if at least some of the staff become familiar with the WCAG. Some companies bring in outside consultants like myself to do an accessibility audit of their websites for them.
Perhaps the biggest task is adding accessibility into an already existing website - that can sometimes involve rather more work, depending on how the site has been written in the first place. But this can be alleviated by introducing many of the changes bit by bit, along with other work that has to be done anyway.
And quite decent improvements can also be accomplished in just the page header and footer, and in a small set of CSS styles, which then immediately show throughout the site, all in one go.
It is important that, as a site is being made accessible, it isn't just left to the developers to handle. The designers must start following the standards as well, and build accessible components into all their designs.
Management also need to take it into their daily thinking so that they don't allow a site to deteriorate once it has been initially made compliant.
Perhaps the easiest mistake to make is to not keep up the momentum. Everyone in the company that is involved with the site must have an on-going commitment to maintaining it.
But the actual work involved is mostly very straight forward. Perhaps the only difficult part of the work is when it comes to captioning videos.
If you want I can give another presentation, at some future date, to discuss some of the methods and techniques developers can use to implement accessibility.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, as they say, government isn't waiting for the web industry to get its house in order. The European Union are busily raising the stakes right now.
They're bringing out a new law, the European Accessibility Act which reaches far beyond the web industry. It'll cover:
- banking services including ATM machines
- PCs and operating systems
- audiovisual products
All these advances will bring the whole matter of accessibility much more into the public eye than ever before. It won't any longer be just the preserve of a select few web developers, ignored by management, and added into job ads purely as a matter of form.
The world has woken up to the fact that business must cater for disabled people just as willingly as it does for able bodied people.
I do find it very satisfying that it is our industry, the web and computer industry, that has shown the way forward on this.