9th September 2008

The importance of web accessibility

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Web accessibility is the practice of making the web fully accessible to disabled users. In order to do this they must be able to navigate, understand and interact with the web.

Web accessibility incorporates several types of disabilities that hinder web access. These range from including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological disabilities.

However, web accessibility doesn’t just cover disabled users. The web needs to be accessible for users with different requirements and needs.

Websites need to be accessible to people with a slower internet connection or a computer without the likes of flash or java installed. Temporary disabilities such as a broken arm can also affect users so accessibility needs to cover a wide variety of scenarios.

The aim of web accessibility is to “provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with disabilities. An accessible web can also help people with disabilities more actively participate in society.” (W3C, WAI)

According to the Guardian.co.uk 60% of the UK’s population have access to the internet. Britain currently records around 9 million disabled people, out of which 36% have access to the internet. The majority of the websites around the world are inaccessible to these 3 million plus users, and that’s just from the UK.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities. The DDA refers to websites as one of the “services to the public” which should be considered covered by the Act.

Part III of the DDA refers to the provision of goods, facilities and services. The relevant quotes from the 175-page Code of Practice are:

•2.2 (p7): “The Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a disabled person by refusing to provide any service which it provides to members of the public.”
•4.7 (p39): “From 1st October 1999 a service provider has to take reasonable steps to change a practice which makes it unreasonably difficult for disabled people to make use of its services.”
•2.13 – 2.17 (p11-13): “What services are affected by the Disability Discrimination Act? An airline company provides a flight reservation and booking service to the public on its website. This is a provision of a service and is subject to the act.”
•5.23 (p71): “For people with visual impairments, the range of auxiliary aids or services which it might be reasonable to provide to ensure that services are accessible might include … accessible websites.”
•5.26 (p68): “For people with hearing disabilities, the range of auxiliary aids or services which it might be reasonable to provide to ensure that services are accessible might include … accessible websites.”

Two large companies have been approached by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) regarding accessibility issues on their website. Both companies then adhered to the issues under the DDA and made sufficient changes to their site to avoid any legal action.

However the benefit of being web accessible is not just important to disabled users. Accessible websites are generally easier to navigate and read. In most cases they even get higher search engine rankings. The likes of Google search bots prefer clean code to crawl. The cleaner your code, the better your chance of a top ranking.

It is understood that if, or even when a company is taken to court over web accessibility issues, then the W3C accessibility guidelines will be used to decide the outcome of the case. The W3C is the governing body for the internet and you can find web accessibility guidelines through the WAI.

The WAI have set 3 different priority checks for accessibility, priority 1, 2 and 3. The WAI pronounce that priority 2 standards should always be met. Priority 3 is ideal and would be the most accessible website. You can check your site against these standards using TAWDIS.

So, overall it seems that web accessibility is becoming a much large issue across the web. It won’t be long before the first company is dragged through the courts for issues with their website. Having a fully accessible website offers several benefits from increased hits to a higher search engine ranking. So make your site future proof and don’t leave out a large potential client base, be accessible.