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Last Updated: Friday, 16 April, 2004, 07:54 GMT 08:54 UK
A web open to all?
The digital divide between able-bodied and disabled people is greater than ever, reports technology analyst Bill Thompson.

Disabled workers, Remploy
Workplaces and websites should accommodate everyone
This week's report on web accessibility from the UK's Disability Rights Commission has been widely covered both online and in print.

The report was the conclusion of a year-long investigation which aimed to find some hard data about the degree to which public websites present obstacles to disabled people who want to use them.

As well as trying to find out how bad things really are, the DRC also wanted to see if there were genuine barriers to inclusive design or whether - although they were far too nice to say this - it was all the fault of sloppy designers and ignorant clients.

The results of the survey were even worse than many had expected.

It is now clear that, as the introduction puts it, "most websites are inaccessible to many disabled people and fail to satisfy even the most basic standards for accessibility recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium".

Of the thousand public websites tested by City University's Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design, 81% failed to meet the basic accessibility criteria laid down by the Web Accessibility Initiative, the international standard in this area.

And not a single page tested was fully compliant up to the maximum level, AAA. Only two met the lower AA standard.

Lessons to learn

While blind or partially sighted people seem to have the hardest job using what is predominantly a screen-based medium, the research also looked at the needs of deaf people, people with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, and people with physical disabilities which affected their use of the standard mouse and keyboard.

It seems things are equally bad for them.

Fortunately, even if natural justice did not demand that site designers make their pages accessible the legal system now does, in the form of Part Three of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.

Bill Thompson
This report should make every one of us who has ever built an inaccessible site hang our heads in shame.
Now that it has the evidence it needs, the commission is threatening both to 'name and shame' organisations with inaccessible sites and to fund legal action by individual disabled people.

I am far from perfect in this respect myself, I know.

The last time I wrote about accessibility I got a pointed e-mail from one reader who had noticed that my home page at the time used popups, javascript and a lot of other non-standard features that would make it hard for a partially sighted person to cope with.

The revised site is a lot better.

Without wanting to deny the designer's share of responsibility, I think a large part of the blame must be placed at the doors of those developing and marketing the tools we use to build our websites.

Both FrontPage from Microsoft and Macromedia's Dreamweaver simply make it too easy to disregard the needs of site visitors with poor sight or those using alternative browsers, and site developers in a hurry simply do not pay attention to the issues.

Good web guidelines

The Web Accessibility Initiative has a set of guidelines for authoring tools, most of which seem pretty straightforward - for example, a tool should prompt the author to provide equivalent alternative information for pictures or multimedia elements instead of leaving it up to the author to remember.

Mouse and keyboard, Eyewire
Not everyone can use a mouse and keyboard
Yet these guidelines are not widely publicised and people do not ask whether the programs they use conform to them.

While there are many tools out there which try to make inaccessible websites more usable, like the BBC's own Betsie, text-to-speech programs, and computers which allow alternative input devices to be used instead of the keyboard and mouse, they are not a real solution.

Instead of technological sticking plasters, we need to make it easier to build an accessible site than to make one that is hard for disabled people to use, and that means ensuring that the tools do the right job.

I spent a day this week at the Cable & Wireless Childnet Academy, a week-long school in web design and multimedia authoring for children from around the world, organised by the children's online charity Childnet International.

The academy members are all selected on the basis of their work on young people's websites in their home countries, and they were all brought to London for a week of design workshops, training sessions and fun activities.

Building accessible sites was important to these kids, and they have sessions on how to make a site work for all its visitors.

Unfortunately the tools they were using - the same programs that professional web developers use every day - do little to ensure they follow the rules.

Building work

So despite their best intentions, it is just too easy to make a page that does not have descriptions of every picture, or one that use tables in ways that are hard for screen readers to interpret and incorporates flashy multimedia elements that make no sense to non-standard browsers.

Gavel, Eyewire
The report could prompt legal action
We need to make sure that these children, who understand the issues, have the tools they need to do the job properly, and that means putting pressure on the software companies themselves.

But whatever the reasons, this report should make every one of us who has ever built an inaccessible site hang our heads in shame.

It is not as if we were architects seeking to preserve a centuries-old building and therefore unable to install ramps and lifts for wheelchair users.

We built this web in the last decade, and seem to have wilfully disregarded the needs of many potential users.

It does not have to be this way. As the DRC report says, the web's "relative immaturity creates a unique opportunity to encourage the observance of disability rights at a much earlier stage".

We need to embrace that opportunity, not see it as a burden or an unnecessary effort.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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