From our archives : Why accessibility is an opportunity to make improvements

| August 29, 2004

Anyone who has any involvement with a website must have been thinking about accessibility. That is, whether people with disabilities can use the site. It’s a hot topic, not least because site owners could conceivably find themselves on the wrong end of a court case if they are making inadequate provision.

There are plenty of places to go for working information: two to try are the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) site and the World Wide Web Consortium. Aside from the ‘nitty-gritty’, though, is the way accessibility will change the whole way we think about the web – it’s a specific issue that will have broader effects. Most positive, but not all.

The bonus of disabled testers

In April 2004 the UK Disability Rights Commission published a report on web accessibility. It uses the expression ‘usability bonus’ to describe the improvements that can be delivered to all users by getting a site checked out by disabled people. If they can use it easily, the logic goes, so can everyone else. No one has really tested out the theory, but the RNIB is planning to put together a group of people with disabilities to do just that. It’s an intriguing idea, because it could mean that the current idea of usability, which involves using a cross-section of people, would be replaced by one that relies on an ‘extreme’ group of testers. They will not only be blind or partially-sighted, they might also be deaf, have difficulty controlling a mouse, or even difficulty understanding or remembering.

If taken too far, the practice would lead to some pretty unexciting sites. But it is hard to imagine anyone doing that: web designers will still use striking pictures and fancy technology when they make sense, offering accessible alternatives where necessary. But from a pure usability point of view, they can’t really do better than getting their site tested by disabled people.

Take for example the labels on links. These should be thought out like newspaper headlines, aiming for crystal clarity in the minimum space. Yet too often they are over-cryptic and ambiguous. While sighted people will click a link, find themselves on the wrong page and click back with barely a thought, people using screen readers cannot afford such time-wasting. They want to know where the link leads without having to click it – and that means the label must be crisply worded.

Or take the general standard of text. If writing for people who have learning difficulties, you will write in the most straightforward English. You will shun jargon and fancy words, and the result will almost certainly be better. Not just for people with learning difficulties, but also for everyone who does not have English as their first language – and, indeed, for everyone who does.

But the biggest advantage of getting disabled people to check out your site – or of thinking about accessibility issues at all – must be that it makes you think differently. As the web person of a big company told us, “it’s helped us think how to get the message across to lots of audiences. If you think about the disabled, it’s also easy to think about communicating with an eight-year-old, an 80-year-old – or even an institutional investor”.

Conflicts of user-group interest

All very win-win. But it can be win-lose: where the disabled user’s gain is another’s loss. One of the favoured devices on the web has been the mouseover dropdown menu. Roll the cursor over a link, and a menu of new links appears alongside it. Sometimes you can generate three or even four columns – and as a result you can jump to pretty much any point on the site in one click. These can be annoyingly unstable, but when done well they provide rapid navigation around a site and are a huge bonus to people with slow connections. A neat implementation – more stable than most – is at the top of each Norsk Hydro page. But it is not accessible. The RNIB told us that their pet screen-reader, JAWS, could not read it, because it was driven by Javascript, and there was no alternative.

It would surely be possible to create a system that keeps both groups (the visually-impaired and people with slow connections) happy, but Hydro has not – and it is not alone. Two large corporations that have recently launched state-of-the-art sites did so without the use of mouseover dropdowns. Accessibility is, they say, a key reason. While dropdown menus have other disadvantages, moving from one click to many click navigation is not, however you look at it, a big step forward.

What’s the answer? It must be imagination and hard work. There is an absolute need to move towards more accessible sites, but there should be a strong drive to avoid losing benefits as we do so. It is up to technologists to put on their thinking caps and work out how this problem – and others like it – can be elegantly overcome.

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