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Last Updated: Friday, 27 October 2006, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Designing a more accessible web
Katie Ledger
By Katie Ledger
Click Reporter

People who find it difficult to use a computer keyboard and mouse, can turn to other devices to navigate the internet, but if the site has not been designed with accessibility in mind, using the web can prove to be a frustrating experience.

A man using the internet
Accessible sites can benefit everyone using the internet
What does web accessibility mean to you?

Probably not a lot. But to some it is the key to actually being able to use the internet.

For a lot more of us though, it might mean a quicker, simpler and easier web experience.

In 2004, the UK's Disability Rights Commission investigated 1,000 websites. It found that 800 of those sites failed to meet minimum accessibility standards set by the web's regulatory body, the World Wide Web Consortium.

It also discovered that if a site is accessible by a disabled user it is also a third quicker for an able-bodied person to complete tasks too.

Test case

Emma Tracey is blind, and she is a journalist from the BBC's Ouch magazine.

We set her the task of buying a book from the Amazon online shop, and she found it extremely difficult.

Emma says: "I was at my computer for 20 minutes.

"To find the book I wanted I had to go through an absolute sea of links, and then when I did find what I needed to buy, and added it to my shopping basket, I couldn't move forward from there because the 'continue' button wasn't marked in such a way that I could find it."

Amazon would not comment directly, but referred us to IMRG, a lobby group of online retailers.

It told us its members take accessibility very seriously, but, it added, changes cannot happen overnight.

Colour coding

JK Rowling website screengrab
Harry Potter author JK Rowling recently launched the first site to use a new form of Flash, which is often used to add interactivity and animation to a site
Web browsing can be a tricky business for many of us: for the elderly, hard of hearing and those with dyslexia.

Changing settings like the font size and colour, or increasing the contrast of the background, can provide a better experience.

Website designer, Leonie Watson says: "There's a technology called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) that allows you to control the way a page is displayed, such as the colour of the text and background.

"So if that's the way a page has been built, then you can control that from within the browser or OS.

"However, that's quite a new technology, it's only been around a couple of years, and a lot of designers are still very wary of using it. They actually hard code the colours into the web page itself, which means that they can't be overridden by your browser, or OS."

Accessible design

It [Flash] has a lot of very easy ways to build in accessibility, providing the developer sets out to do that from the beginning
Leonie Watson, website designer

There is hope, however.

Harry Potter author JK Rowling recently launched the first site to use a new form of Flash, which is often used to add interactivity and animation to a website.

Two years ago, Adobe updated this technology so designers using Flash could build in accessibility features.

Leonie Watson says: "Flash is a very interesting topic in terms of web accessibility. It's actually capable of being very accessible indeed.

"It has means for building in captioning for people who are hearing impaired; it allows soundtracks to be imported very easily so that audio description can be provided for people with visual impairments; it has a lot of very easy ways to build in accessibility, providing the developer sets out to do that from the beginning."

Legal standards

There are numerous ways of making the web easier to use for everyone, but will companies see the benefits to building a fully accessible site and actually go about implementing it?

If not, in the future they might be forced to.

US store Target brings low prices to millions of people.

But one blind student thinks its online service is very wide of the mark.

Backed by the National Federation of the Blind in what could be a landmark trial, he is taking the company to court on the grounds of discrimination.

In the UK, recent developments give web designers pause for thought.

Some basic legislation exists to try to ensure websites which provide services, education or employment opportunities meet minimum requirements.

And The British Standards Institution recently published new guidelines called Publicly Available Specification 78, which recommends ways of making all websites accessible. It is hoped it will become a legal requirement in the future.

Those calling for easier access say it should not take the heavy hand of the law to make it better, it should be plain common sense.

SEE ALSO
Gadget firms tackled on usability
15 May 06 |  Technology
Usability awards are just a start
31 Oct 05 |  Technology
Disabled users to test websites
17 Mar 06 |  Technology

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