Website Accessibility Making the News

While the BBC headline might sound quite depressing: 'Most websites' failing disabled, I found the news quite encouraging - not because of the sorry state of most websites, but because high profile news items like this can help to raise awareness of this important issue.

While the article suggests 97% of leading websites don't even meet minimum levels of accessibility, I do think it has played the numbers up a bit. Firstly, setting the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as the 'minimum standards', one would expect a pedantic interpretation of these guidelines to exclude most sites - even if many of the sites have made significant efforts towards accessibility.

Actually I believe that, in the UK at least, a growing number of leading websites are making accessibility an important priority for their web development strategies. This may be partly prompted by the (politicaly correct) government, and Disability Discrimination Act requirements, but also because businesses are discovering that accessible websites are better websites.

One thing the article fails to emphasise, is that the modest amount of additional effort that is required to ensure that a site is accessible, is more than worth it, not just for any disabled users it might have, but for the success of the site itself.

Websites developed to be 'accessible', mean that they comply to web standards, which in turn means the site is more likely to display correctly in different web browsers and operating systems. By making a website usable for 'disabled' people, it helps to make the website more usable for everyone. Also, with better semantic layout and information in an accessible website, it helps search engines make sense of the site, leading to better search engine results. Basically, accessible websites make good business sense.

An interesting comment in the news article was that "Building dull, technically compliant websites is easy but building commercially successful sites that are also accessible is not". While I agree with this comment, it misses out on something important: that it is not easy to build a commercially successful site even if it's not accessible!

My only note of caution to any website owners, is that 'accessibility' is not something that can be bolted-on after a website is developed, it has to be designed-in from the start. Anyone interested in learning more about designing-in accessibility would do well to check out Sarah Horton's latest book Access by Design, which she has kindly made available online for free (Sarah Horton is the co-author of the well respected Web Style Guide).

Comments

The UK Government's Web Handbook also has a handy checklist for universal usability - which contains a concise and helpful summary of the important aspects of website accessibility and usability.

You may also consider useit http://www.useit.com as this gives much toward the goal of usability for all. Although boring as hell to look at, the content really is there.

I am very familiar with useit.com, and I agree it's quite dull in its presentation. I value his (Jakob Nielsen's) advice, mostly because it is well researched, however I do think his extreme attitudes detract from the value.

The basis of all good design is "form follows function". While it's important to start with the 'functional' design elements (ie. usability, functionality, content), it is also essential to follow on with some 'form' (an attractive and compelling graphical presentation). UseIt is all function and no form!! Such a shame really, he's got one half of it done really well.

Yes, I've read that site a few times, particularly when it pertained to a class I was taking. You can still have function on a site that doesn't look like it was written in 1994.