Ranting about web accessibility

In March 2013, the Wall Street Journal published an article on lawsuits then in progress to force businesses to ensure that their websites were accessible to people with disabilities: Disabled Sue Over Web Shopping.

The article contained a few errors of fact such as ‘That could mean websites will be required to include spoken descriptions of photos and text boxes for the blind, as well as captions and transcriptions of multimedia features for the deaf’, but these paled into insignificance beside the claims made in the comments. I’ve brought together a few of the comments and added  my responses.

Costs and benefits of addressing accessibility

It’s too expensive

‘A site like Amazon has over a billion (yes, with a B) catalog pages. Updating them all will take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, thus raising prices for everyone.’

Response

Many of the images on amazon.com (at least the sample I tested) already have text equivalents. Perhaps Amazon has integrated accessibility into at least some of its business processes.

Also, as the article noted, building in accessibility as you go adds very little to the cost of publishing a website. Retrofitting it is much more expensive.

Businesses should be free to choose

‘A business should be free to make the cost/benefit analysis for itself, not have it forced..’

Response

Governments impose all sorts of obligations on businesses – to protect workers, customers and the environment, and to achieve any number of other goals. Their right to do so comes (in democracies) from the voters.

Business will do it if the ROI is there

‘If there was a ROI, then there would be no point in governmental involvement:’

Response

Businesses, like individuals, tend to keep doing what they’ve always done even when change would be beneficial. Making websites accessible generally also makes them leaner, faster, and easier for Google and other search engines to index.

Alternatives for people with disabilities

Persuasion vs litigation

‘Why can’t these people simply ask, suggest, or otherwise persuade these web-based companies to have a more user friendly portal? Why the hell does everyone have to sue?’

Response

I’m not aware of any case where a person or organisation has sued without first asking the business nicely. If anyone can cite an example, please add a comment (with citation).

Accessibility software

‘…there is 3rd party software that does this job extremely effectively.’

Response

The tools used by people with disabilities vary as much as their disabilities do: someone who is both deaf and blind might use a refreshable Braille display; someone who is blind might use a screen reader which, as the name suggests, reads out the text on screen. However, all these tools rely on the text content of a website – they cannot (yet) analyse an image and work out whether it is a button labelled ‘Search’ or a decorative image of a dancing cat.

Red herrings

Languages other than english

‘What about non-English speakers? … [It] is the beginning of a slippery slope.’

Response

While the inability to speak English in a society like the US or Australia is certainly a disadvantage, it’s not a disability.

What about driving?

‘What I’m surprised about is that no blind person has sued a car company for not making a car they can drive.’

Response

Allowing a blind person to drive a car (using current technology) would put others at risk. Whose safety is compromised by using current technology to make it as easy as possible for a blind person to use your website?

General insults

Those demanding access are ‘takers’

‘It seems we’ve turned into a nation of takers, no matter the reason’

Response

Making websites accessible to people with disabilities makes it easier for them to contribute to society – learning, working, shopping, paying their taxes. People who want to be able to do things for themselves are hardly ‘takers’.

Access all areas

But my customers aren’t disabled…

Website accessibility isn’t just about social justice or avoiding law suits; designing with accessibility in mind provides benefits for all your clients.

In Australia, perhaps the most obvious example to use to convince a website owner of the value of making their site accessible to people with disabilities is to quote McGuire v SOCOG. In this landmark case, SOCOG (the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) was ordered to pay Bruce McGuire (a blind man) $20,000 compensation for the fact that their website had been constructed in a way that made certain features unusable for people using screen readers to access the web. Despite this cautionary tale, it is tempting for small-to-medium-sized businesses to ask whether the ‘extra’ effort is worthwhile to limit the fairly low risk of a lawsuit.

But how much extra effort is genuinely required to create an accessible website, and who actually benefits?

One of the defences put to HREOC (the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission) by SOCOG was that making the relevant pages of the website accessible would require extraordinary levels of time and effort. This was countered by expert evidence asserting first that the many pages requiring work didn’t need to be rewritten individually (a relatively small number of standard templates could be used) and second that it would have been almost no extra work if it had been planned for from the start.

Who benefits?

There are parallels in the physical world. Providing wheelchair access as part of the design of a new building is straightforward, adding little if any cost to the builder; adding it to an existing building may require modifications which are both expensive and ugly. And providing a ramp for people with wheelchairs, crutches and walking sticks also makes life (and access to your business) easier for people pushing prams, delivery van drivers with goods trolleys and travelling executives dragging wheeled cabin bags.

Accessible design has obvious payoffs for people using assistive technologies such as screen readers for the blind – even people who are both deaf and blind can interact independently with the wider world through the medium of the internet. And don’t forget that baby boomers are reaching the age when their vision and dexterity are becoming progressively more impaired – meeting the needs of this generation provides an opportunity for your business to grow.(BusinessWeek, 2001)

However, people with specific disabilities aren’t the only ones to benefit. It would be possible to use a browser with voice input and output to, for example, check for the best route around the roadwork you’ve just encountered.

The features which contribute to accessible design also tend to produce pages which are smaller and faster to load and which don’t require elaborate reworking to allow them to be accessed through mobile phones or personal digital assistants. Faster page loading times also benefit the significant number of internet users who, even now, not have access to broadband.

Internet search engines can be compared with screen readers, in that they interpret the underlying code of a page and cannot use visual cues to interpret the meaning or relative importance of the different elements which make it up. Accessible design contributes to your site being indexed correctly by major search engines and directories such as Google and Yahoo: Google’s Webmaster guidelines include the advice that ‘₀ most search engine spiders see your site much as Lynx [a text browser] would.’

Truly accessible design takes into account the needs of wide range of users:

  • people using screen readers,
  • people who need large (perhaps very large) font sizes,
  • people who can’t distinguish red text on a green background,
  • people with tremor disorders like Parkinson’s disease,
  • people who for one reason or another can’t use a mouse.

This isn’t easy, but it isn’t rocket science either: more than anything it requires an approach which treats universal access as a basic feature rather than something it is nice to have if it doesn’t cost anything. It requires designers and builders to accept the challenge of fulfilling Tim Berners-Lee’s dream:

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. (WAI)

This doesn’t mean that your website has to be boring either: most of the visually stunning pages at CSSzengarden are accessible. It does mean that if you offer a service in a way which creates barriers for people with particular disabilities, you need to think about more accessible alternatives.

Achieving accessibility

If your website is a key element of your business, it needs to be accessible. To achieve this, you can rely on automated checkers, your web design team, or an independent accessibility audit. Automated checkers can only check the most basic mistakes: they can identify an image without an alt attribute (which describes the image and may appear when you mouse over it, and is spoken aloud by a screen reader), but not one with an alt attribute that provides no useful information. For example, a graphic used to indicate a link to the next page could omit the alt attribute (which Bobby would flag), or include alt=“right arrow” (which it wouldn’t). A competent human editor would suggest a more useful alt attribute, describing the function of the graphic (alt=“next page”) rather than its appearance.

As an example of what not to do, Jim Thatcher described a US government agency website (since rebuilt) which would have passed all automated checks while at the same time providing many users – not only those using screen readers – with an almost unusable site.

For each business it is both a social justice challenge – even if it were legal it would not be ethical to choose to exclude people with disabilities from your site – and a commercial one. With so many inaccessible websites out there, an accessible site has the opportunity to appeal to a significant, and growing, segment of the population.

Contact me to discuss ways of making your site more accessible.