What is this thing called accessibility?

Whether you are a hands-on web manager who likes to get in and make updates, or a hands-off manager happy to make the big decisions and leave the doing to others, it is important that you understand the concept of web accessibility.

Why? Well, for one thing it is a requirement under Australian law that websites be accessible - but there are plenty of other good reasons too.

What is web accessibility?

In its most general sense web accessibility refers to web content being available and usable by the widest possible audience, regardless of their location, level of internet access (e.g. dial-up versus ADSL or wireless broadband), technology used (type of device, operating system etc) and any disability a person may have.

As the manager of a website you most likely want your website to be available to the widest possible audience so making your site accessible seems like good business.

So what is the issue?

Many of us have a pretty well defined view of what web content is, and how you interact with it. Traditionally, you sit in front of a computer, fire up a web browser such as Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer and use your mouse and keyboard to navigate around the web and watch the results come up on a nice big computer display. This scenario is what many websites are designed to cater for.

But that is not how everyone interacts with websites. 

If you’ve ever browsed a website on a smartphone and run into problems because the website requires you to hover over a menu item to see an expanded menu then you know how difficult that is because you don’t have a mouse or touchpad. You’ve just encountered a site that hasn’t been designed with accessibility in mind.

That may have been a minor annoyance for you, perhaps you decided you’d check the site out next time you were at your laptop—but think how it would be for someone that can’t use a mouse because of some physical disability!

The issue is, unless we constantly keep accessibility in mind it is very easy to make decisions that result in some of our content not being accessible.

What makes a site inaccessible?

Accessibility problems can be introduced at any stage in the life of a website.

Making sure that the initial site design is accessible is crucial to the overall accessibility of your website. You should make sure that whoever is designing and developing your site has a good understanding of the issues.

But that is only the beginning. Every time you add content to your site you are running the risk of making it inaccessible. Some examples of how this might happen are:

Adding PDFs

PDFs (Portable Document Format) are notoriously inaccessible. We mostly want to put PDFs on our websites because we have some content we really want on our site (let’s say it is a product catalogue)—but it is too much work to enter it all as HTML web content. You already have a nice glossy print version of the catalogue as a PDF—why not load that up instead? While it is possible to add some accessibility features, PDFs that have been designed for print almost never have them. (A more detailed discussion of PDF and accessibility issues is available from the Australian Human Rights Commission website.)

Adding images and other media files

People managing web content often like to add nice images to a webpage. It makes them more visually appealing. That’s fine, but images often have a relatively large file size, and adding lots of images to a page can make it much slower to load. Images that are just there to make a page look pretty can be a problem for people on low-bandwidth connections (such as dial-up, and some wireless broadband) or who have limited data plans (such as many mobile phone users).

It is even more of a problem when images are used to convey important information - such as a diagram of how a particular piece of equipment works. Visually impaired people may not be able to interpret the image at all. (Which means the information in the diagram is not accessible!) It is important to ensure that any important information that is conveyed in an image is also conveyed by a textual description.

Improperly structured web content

Properly structured content is also a very important aspect of web accessibility. HTML strucutral elements should be used appropriately. For example:

  • Headings should be marked up with the appropriate level headings (eg H1, H2, H3).
  • Bullet lists should use proper HTML bullets, not just asterisks or full stops.
  • Tables should only be used for content that is truly tabular.

It is very tempting for some content authors to use HTML elements to achieve a specific visual effect. For example they may want some text on a page to really stand out so they make it a heading level 1 when it isn’t a heading at all. Another common mistake is to use a table to set out content in columns when the content isn’t really true tabular data at all.

Accessibility sounds like a pain. Should I really care?

After reading all that you might beginning to think that what sounded like a good idea is actually a right pain. Is it really necessary?

The answer is yes. 

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 has specific requirements for Australian websites (or websites hosted in Australia). These requirements effectively mean that all websites need to consider accessibility requirements. More detailed information is contained in World Wide Web Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes.

It’s really in your best interest

If meeting your social obligations isn’t enough to convince you then consider that meeting accessibility requirements is about making your content available to as many people as possible. That has got to be a good thing for you!

There are also many incidental benefits from making your website accessible. Many accessibility requirements make your website much easier for everyone to use, not just those with specific accessibility issues.

In addition, arguably some of the most single important visitors to any site can neither see, hear or use a keyboard or mouse. Search engines! Meeting accessibility requirement will make it much easier for search engines to properly index your site making sure everybody will find it easier to get to your site.

So how do I make my site accessible?

That’s easy, you just…

No wait, unfortunately it’s actually a bit complicated. 

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international organisation charged with overseeing standards for the internet. They have produced version 2 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (often cited as WCAG 2.0). WCAG 2.0 is generally accepted as the standard for web accessibility. WCAG 2.0 allows for different levels of conformance with the guidelines and identifies what must be done to achieve the different levels of conformance. This is the standard that is endorsed in the World Wide Web Access: Disability Discrimination Act advisory notes, which recommend that all non-government sites being built now reach level AA conformance, and existing sites reach this level of conformance by the end of 2013.

Future articles will cover how to make your site accessible in more detail.

Published: Thursday, 28 June 2012