Back to basics: Web accessibility - Make your site user-friendly

Unsure about how to build a website that is acessible to everyone? Alexandra Coxon offers this step-by-step guide.

With the latest estimates suggesting that there are more than 3 billion pages on the web, it's easy to see why many voluntary organisations feel overwhelmed by the internet. In the past decade, the web has grown so much in size and complexity that, today, you can almost live your life sitting in front of your computer.

You can manage your bank balance and household bills, purchase groceries, send gifts to friends overseas, even buy a new house - and all from the comfort of your own home. For voluntary organisations trying to make their mark in the digital world, this kind of capability can seem daunting.

To complicate matters further, there's the Disability Discrimination Act. Since October 1999, it has been a legal obligation for service providers to make "reasonable adjustments to the way they deliver their services so that disabled people can use them". And with the final stages of the Act coming into force in October 2004, organisations should already have made their website more accessible to ensure it is compliant - though many have only just started to think about the problem.

This step-by-step guide should help you on your way, whether you're already making adjustments or starting from scratch.

1. Know where you stand with the law

The first matter to clear up is the myth surrounding DDA compliance.

This may come as a surprise, but there's no definitive answer as to what you have to do to ensure your website conforms to the Act.

"The Act is reliant on case law," explains Julie Howell, digital policy development manager at the RNIB. "A person with a disability has to pursue a case and, until this point, nothing has been taken to court apart from two cases brought by the RNIB on behalf of blind and partially-sighted individuals. These cases were settled out of court. One was subject to county court proceedings, but that's as far as it's gone."

The law may be vague, but that doesn't give you an excuse to avoid the issue. The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has a comprehensive set of guidelines covering the main considerations (see panel, p30).

The website for the 2000 Sydney Olympics failed to follow the WAI guidelines and the site owner was forced to pay A$20,000 (£8,000) when a blind user who couldn't access the site took it to court. The RNIB's advice is to play it safe. Take the WAI principles as your guide and look to achieve compliance at a level called double 'A'.

2. Talk to your users

You won't get far if you don't speak to your clients and find out what they want from your website. Canvass a cross-section of users, both disabled and non-disabled. If you can't find users with a specific disability, approach a voluntary organisation that caters for them.

Talking to these charities and their client base will help you understand the issues associated with that disability. But do remember to keep the dialogue going. "If you keep talking to people who've felt previously disenfranchised, they're more likely to buy in to what you're trying to do," says RNIB's Howell.

Remember also to bear in mind that not all disabled users are the same.

Each person will have their own level of aptitude and web experience, not to mention varying grades of access technology.

"One size does not fit all," warns Howell. "Web accessibility is not about the lowest common denominator. It is about optimum user experience."

3. Remember that disability comes in a variety of forms

It may sound obvious, but think about the variety of disabilities that your website should cater for.

Sara Ashton, web manager at the RNID, explains: "Much of the focus on web accessibility is about people with visual impairment using screen readers. As a result, people tend to focus primarily on the structure of pages, often forgetting that the type of language used on a website is also important in making it accessible to a much wider audience.

"We know that many of our own web users use sign language to communicate - for example, British Sign Language (BSL), which is used by approximately 50,000 people in the UK. For them, English is effectively their second language. To make web content more accessible to them it should be provided in plain English. This is also helpful for users with learning difficulties."

Another important area to consider is the technology that is available to your users. Robin Christopherson, web consultancy manager at AbilityNet, a charity that provides an advice service, says: "For deaf or hard-of-hearing users, it's a good idea to have subtitling available if you've got video content; likewise to have a transcript available if you have streamed audio. This sort of approach will also help non-disabled people that don't have the bandwidth available to view them."

4. Deal with the simple stuff first

There are 64 checkpoints under the WAI's web content guidelines, yet just eight of them caused more than four out of every five problems encountered by a Disability Rights Commission study group in 2004. Assuming you have the capability to design or rebuild your website in-house, focusing on these eight areas is advisable in the first instance (see box, below).

You should also ensure that you keep users informed about any changes you intend to make. Put a plain English statement on your homepage to tell them that you'll be making the site more accessible and invite them to contact you if they have any specific requirements or questions. Remember to include contact details on the site.

And, for the sake of users with screen readers, consider running that message in the top left-hand corner. This is also a good location for an accessibility policy statement once the site is finished.

5. Be alert when employing a third-party web consultant

If you don't have the knowledge or expertise to build or redesign your website in-house, then you will need to hire a web consultant to do the job for you. But remember, any mistakes they make will be your responsibility, so stay vigilant.

Make sure that prospective designers will undertake usability testing on your behalf and are able to provide you with details of their previous work. Ensure that you double-check these sites for yourself. Talk to the associated organisations and their disabled users and ask them how streamlined the build was.

Even if you do have expertise in-house, you may have to call on a third party if your needs are particularly complex. When Citizens Advice needed to make an already functioning website more accessible, the organisation called on AbilityNet to help undertake the structuring of a wider policy guideline document.

Finally, don't be deterred from using outside expertise because you fear it's going to be prohibitively expensive. The RNIB's See it Right consultancy is just one example of an organisation that will charge on a sliding scale for its services, depending on the status of the client.

6. Usability - test, test, and test again

"I am a keen internet user," says John Lever, a visually impaired volunteer with Henshaws Society for Blind People in Greater Manchester. "Although some websites are good, the vast majority are pretty awful for a visually impaired person like myself. The text is often faint and fonts are thin, with poor use of colour contrast. One site I visited recently used orange writing against a yellow background, which was completely useless for me."

If there's one thing to learn from people like Lever, it's that you can't take anything for granted. The web designers behind those aforementioned sites may have been the most well-meaning folk in the business, doing all the software checks possible to ensure accessibility. But if those designers never tested for usability, how could they have known if the site was accessible in real life?

"Testing with end users is more important than anything," says AbilityNet's Christopherson. "When the Disability Rights Commission did its survey in 2004, 55 per cent of the issues coming out of the testing were directly related to a WAI checkpoint and 45 per cent weren't. This means that code compliance is only half of the story."

The message is simple - conduct tests with real-life users, and plenty of them. As the RNIB's Julie Howell puts it: "That's the beauty of the web. You can try it out before it goes live: something which definitely can't be said of print."

CASE STUDY - HENSHAWS

Henshaws Society for Blind People won recognition for its website at the recent National Library for the Blind's Visionary Design Awards. Coming top in the 'visual impairment' category, the Manchester-based charity was honoured for putting accessibility at the heart of its web design.

It was also commended for the way the site meets the needs of those using access technologies.

"As a marketing tool, a website speaks volumes about the value an organisation places on communicating with customers," explains Vicky Delderfield, marketing and communications manager at Henshaws. "It amazes me that 81 per cent of sites fail to satisfy even the most basic Web Accessibility Initiative category, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to be used by people with an impairment, particularly a visual one."

Following eight months of work with consultancy Poptel Technology, Henshaws is proud of its new site. Most telling of all, though, is the feedback from the charity's clients.

Allan Carter, a visually impaired service user from Greater Manchester, says: "The Henshaws site is easy to use, even to the point of not having to use the text-only option. All the links are clearly labelled and some even have a little prompt to let you know what that link is about. It is a glowing example of how sites should be designed."

WAI GUIDELINES

The Web Accessibility Initiative provides 64 checkpoints under its Web Accessibility Guidelines, but just eight caused more than 80 per cent of problems encountered by a Disability Rights Commission study group.

If you don't have the funds to pay for an exhaustive redesign, focus your efforts on the following:

- Provide a text equivalent for every non-text element

- Ensure that foreground and background colour combinations provide sufficient contrast

- Ensure that pages are usable when scripts and applets are not supported

- Avoid movement in pages until users have had time to freeze the content

- Don't create pop-ups or other 'spawned' windows without informing the user and giving them time to disable them

- Divide large blocks of information into more manageable groups

- Clearly identify the target of each link

- Use the clearest and simplest language appropriate for your site's content

WHERE TO GET MORE HELP

- The Web Accessibility Initiative is a working group of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WAI's Web Accessibility Guidelines have been adopted by the UK government and are available at www.w3c.org/WAI

- www.accessit.nda.ie puts the WAI guidelines into plain English and also provides information on testing techniques

- www.accessify.com has a forum available where visitors can pose questions to technical experts, free of charge

- http://bobby.watchfire.com is a great place to start because you can test single, active pages from your website free of charge from here.

Bear in mind that an online tool will not be able to check for usability.

You will need to conduct tests with your own client base in order to get a true picture of how your site fares

- The RNIB's web accessibility centre www.rnib.org.uk/wac is full of free information

- The Plain English Campaign website at www.plainenglish.co.uk gives information on how to write in plain English. The organisation also runs training courses

- Finally, don't forget to read the Disability Rights Commission's recent report on web access. It's free to download at www.drc-gb.org/ publicationsandreports/report.asp.

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