Accessibility: Why it is Easy
Anti-discrimination legislation did not happen overnight.
Indeed, the process of inclusion for citizens of all demographics has been on the agenda of governments and human rights activists the world over for many years.
It’s not a new agenda
Most policy makers and corporate watchdogs actively encourage the employment and inclusion of all people regardless of ethnicity, social or economic standing, religion, mental capacity or physical attributes.
Some countries also enforce these policies to create a fair and socially responsible business climate.
Private and public organizations likewise have long understood the importance of providing facilities for staff members and visitors with special needs, particularly in their legal place of business or operations.
Not providing such amenities would likely result in litigation, and so in many cases these companies feel compelled to address any inadequacies as a high priority business agenda.
What about the Internet?
Surprisingly many companies had not even considered the idea of ensuring their business’ Internet premise was also accessible.
After all, why would a person that has vision impairment use the Internet?
Well of course they would want to use the Internet, just as any sighted person would want to access such a vast and rich resource. Vision impairment is also only one of many other conditions that can potentially inhibit the use of information resources like the Internet.
Many people who have difficulty using digital or interactive media may not necessarily be technically classified as having a disabling condition either.
Thankfully, there are now various technologies to aid users with special needs in their use of media.
Included in a large variety of assisting technologies are items such as screen readers or Braille machines for people with vision restrictions, subtitles for those with hearing difficulties, and speech recognition for those without the full use of their appendages.
In spite of the existence of these tremendous technologies, the ability of a machine to accurately render content in a meaningful way often relies on that content being formatted with careful consideration of accessibility standards.
Why is this suddenly so important?
The issue was not really even on the corporate radar until a recent lawsuit mounted by the US National federation for the Blind (NFB) on behalf of claimants with disabilities, stated that they were being discriminated against because a well known company’s online content was only accessible by able-bodied people.
The NFB had raised concerns with the Target corporation (a major US-based discount retailer which operates more than 1,300 stores in 47 states) more than ten months before, and stated:
“The website is no more accessible today than it was in May of last year, when we first complained to Target.”
The issue bubbles away in boardrooms even now as legal teams scramble to advise their clients on the best way to conform to changes in the Disability Discrimination Act, Section 508, and other such legislative decrees from various governments of the world.
Whose problem is this?
Website developers have long known about the technical requirements and specifications as determined by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
Any developer that has been in the industry for a length of time has already had acknowledge and adapt to changing technological standards both in hardware and software design.
Why aren’t website companies just building accessible sites anyway?
Yet many website developers felt that the stringent requirements of the Website Accessibility Initiative (WAI) would restrict their design capability too much, when in essence the real issue was a reluctance to subject their working practices to higher standards that are easily measurable by anyone with a browser and a little bit of knowledge.
Their previously ‘easy’ way of doing things was in their opinion much quicker, cheaper, and visually more interesting.
The truth however was that this new (and improved) way of doing things would require busy agencies to take the time to retrain.
They do say that you ‘can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. In this case, there are now quite a few old dogs in the maturing digital media industry.
Are there any other benefits besides avoiding legal action?
Actually not only is designing accessible websites easy, it makes a lot of sense on many different strategic levels. Consider the following insights as documented in the “Guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites” (British Standards Institute 2006, ISBN_0 580 46567 5):
* The Family Resources Survey  found that there are almost 10 million disabled people in the UK with a combined spending power in the region of 80 billion pounds per annum. Furthermore there are millions of other individuals that are affected by sensory, physical and/or cognitive impairments, including those resulting from the ageing process.
* Research undertaken by the DRC “The Web: Access and inclusion for disabled people”  has confirmed that people without disabilities are also able to use websites that are optimised for accessibility more effectively and more successfully.
* Content developed upholding World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines and specifications can be more easily transferred to other media, such as interactive TV, mobile phones and handheld computers.
* Accessible content, for example where a text equivalent is provided for graphical elements, is highly visible to search engines, often leading to higher rankings.
Certainly these benefits will be of interest to executives considering the perceived expense associated with building accessible interactive content, yet there are also other benefits in the form of corporate social responsibility and public relations.
What does the stakeholder need to do about accessibility?
Whenever a digital media project is commissioned by a company the only consideration to be made by stakeholders is to what level of compliance the content should adhere.
There is a small amount of flexibility in this context because there are some elements within the standard which are considered compulsory, some which are recommended yet are not necessarily essential, and others which are desirable to create something which has the maximum possibility of being viewed by any user, regardless of their situation.
Ultimately, a design or development company can adopt a more stringent approach depending on the design criteria set by executives.
Should the stakeholder be reading more about the standards?
There are a lot of technical and specification documents full of jargon that can be overwhelming to conscientious companies attempting to embrace the need for accessibility.
In reality all of this content should instead be assimilated by the agencies that intend to create the content rather than the corporations who simply want to develop an interactive strategy.
Why is everyone trying to sell consultation about accessibility?
Given that there is suddenly some confusion amongst the corporate world as executives scramble to become legally watertight, many so-called consultancies have sprung up to exploit these vulnerable companies by charging great sums of money to analyse current websites or digital content for accessibility inadequacies.
There are certainly tools available that can easily interrogate the code of a website and examine the structure to identify any obvious ‘rule-breaking’.
Some consultants will go as far as to use these free tools to create reports on accessibility, when this is only one component of whether a website is usable and “friendly” for people with special needs.
These same ‘consultants’ would like to also have large corporations paying them to help with search engine optimisation (SEO), which should not really be an issue if a website is built correctly in the first place.
What alternatives are there to external consultancy reports?
Actually, corporate executives may be surprised to know that money spent on consultancy reports could be better spent simply paying some users with actual disabilities to visit the website in question and offer constructive feedback through a usability workshop.
So what about Usability?
Usability is a little different, and perhaps an even more important concept for consideration than the subject of this paper.
Usability could be defined very basically as how intuitive some content is for the ‘average’ person to use, regardless of any special needs.
If the website is accessible, is it also a good website?
It is possible to check all the boxes of the W3C Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and yet have a layout and content that actually makes very little sense to users of the site.
Usability on the other hand benefits everyone, which ultimately translates into a positive experience for all users as they interact with a company’s branded presence.
A positive user experience logically leads to results, such as increased sales, brand interaction, positive word of mouth, and other business benefits.
Isn’t accessibility a bit complicated?
Although there can appear to be some complexity (and therefore consultancy work) involved in building highly accessible or usable content, this is actually a fundamental service which should rather come as a standard inclusion with any development proposal that is worth its salt.
Indeed, commissioning an accessible website should be no different to commissioning any ‘ordinary’ website.
They are certainly the same thing in the eyes of an accomplished website development company.
It is really as simple as making sure the site is built correctly in the first place.
This means a good foundation, standards compliance, craftsmanship, good project management, together with attention to detail and great build quality.
Building a website is like building a house
The process could be compared to building a new house.
As the homeowner you would want an architect and builder who are abreast of the latest trends, techniques, standards and processes to build your house.
You would not expect them to charge you a consultancy fee on top of the house design and build fees.
How would you feel if you then found your brand new home was illegal because it did not adhere to the current building code?
The enforcement agents would instruct for your house to be razed to the ground.
Likewise, building a new website in the new millennium should take all current design and technical specifications into consideration by default.
What if I have existing websites that need to become accessible?
As opposed to building, renovating an existing house can be considerably more problematic.
What can seem like a single simple task may end up becoming five other quite complicated tasks.
This can make budgeting quite difficult, and milestones seemingly without a definitive end.
In the same way the processes used in the original construction of an older website will be dated and likely no longer compliant.
This often means that major re-engineering may be required to bring the site up to the standards set in legislation.
Sometimes, it can be easier to knock down the outdated house (or website) and start again.
Are there any websites that can be easily updated to conform to accessibility requirements?
Fortunately database driven dynamic websites have a distinct advantage over static websites when it is time to ‘renovate’.
If the content is being loaded into a browser from a database, it is then also possible to modify the way that content is displayed (or rendered by aiding technologies) through page templates. These templates can be updated or replaced with greater ease to create an entirely new website that is completely accessible.
Will renovating an old database driven website be expensive?
Perhaps most importantly, this renovation process need not be tremendously expensive as there is no complete website rebuild, nor the creation of hundreds of new web pages manually as in the case of a static website rebuild.
Which websites will require a complete rebuild?
If a site has been built statically, it could be compared to a building that was originally set in concrete with steel reinforcement.
Unfortunately in these cases it is better to simply demolish and start again.
Of course this also affords the opportunity to use the latest trends and building techniques to create something fresh and contemporary, perhaps even prize-winning.
In these circumstances, the work (and therefore expense) involved in making the website accessible could be compared to a new build website project.
Recommendations for stakeholders
Certainly it could be said that if there is any one recommendation to be made in the design and building of websites, stakeholders should make sure that all content is dynamically driven from a database.
By doing this the company can ensure that the site can be continually modified as Internet technologies and standards change.
The content will at the end of the day always just be content.
Businesses that are maintaining websites with a content management system (or CMS) will have this functionality built in already and are a step ahead of the game.
That’s not so hard, all in all.
So accessibility is not complicated after all, nor is it necessarily expensive.
The foundation of a great interactive and accessible project that returns measurable results is starting with a great interactive strategy.
* Define the market, milestones, means, and measurement methodology.
* Direct the organization to ensure company-wide commitment, content, continuity, and contribution.
* Design the technical and aesthetic solution.
* Develop the content and assets in keeping with the latest thinking in website design and construction.
Deploy optimised and accessible content, and then enjoy the added advantages of creating a resource that people all over the world can enjoy regardless of their accessibility constraints.
Paul Grant is a convergence evangelist and digital media strategist, having spent eleven years managing and implementing rich media projects. He is now a partner of London-based consultancy Interactive Strategy Ltd.
To make a connection with me: http://www.linkedin.com/in/interactivestrategy