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Friday, 21 June, 2002, 08:31 GMT 09:31 UK
Access all areas of the web
Computer consultant Bill Thompson
Computer consultant Bill Thompson looks at how many websites discriminate against people with disabilities.

On 14 June, large numbers of people around Britain made some very dubious fashion choices in support of a good cause.

As part of the Royal National Institute for the Blind's Look Loud Day, everyone was encouraged to wear their loudest and brightest clothes to school, office or around the home and donate 1 for the privilege of looking garish.

Look Loud day participant
Poor fashion choices for a good cause
As well as fund-raising, the day helps to raise awareness of the needs of blind and partially-sighted people.

This year, the event was also used to highlight a particular problem faced by people with poor vision or none at all: the appalling state of the world wide web from the perspective of someone using a screen reader or other accessibility tools.

Busy windows

A screen reader is a program or some extra hardware that lets your computer read what is on your screen out loud.

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They have been around for many years. In the days before Windows and the Macintosh desktop, when computer monitors displayed 25 lines of text, each 80 characters wide, they were very useful indeed.

Few designers seem to care that they are excluding millions of people from seeing or using the sites they are building

Back in 1992, I taught a blind programmer how to use the C programming language, and her screen reader made it very straightforward.

Unfortunately today's screens are very different indeed, with lots of overlapping windows of different sizes and lots of extra text on the screen apart from the stuff you're actually looking at.

Have a look at this web page and you will find dozens of links and other text as well as the article you're reading, and lots of pictures.

Screen readers have become a lot more sophisticated as a result. The best even track the mouse pointer and tell you what you are pointing at and the shape of the pointer at any time, but they still have problems with the web.

Flashy sites

Few designers seem to care that they are excluding millions of people from seeing or using the sites they are building, and many websites are not designed to be accessible to screen readers, despite the availability of guidelines for good design, checking tools and other useful resources.

Loud Look participants
Flashy clothes to make a point
Until recently one of the main problems was Flash, the program used to make lots of online games and cartoons. Often Flash "movies" are used to provide animation and interaction on a site. Sometimes the parts done in Flash can be very important as some home pages are entirely done using it.

Yet this widely used tool did not support any screen readers at all, so it was impossible for a blind person to use. Now, things are getting slightly better.

The Look Loud Day campaign website features a Look Loud game, developed for them by BlueWave, that lets you dress up a cartoon character in really bright and clashing clothing, and e-mail your resulting anti-fashion victim to a friend or colleague.

It is written in the latest version of Flash - Flash MX - and it works seamlessly with the Window-Eyes screen reader, so at last a blind person can play the game too.

This is a start - there are lots of other screen readers out there that have not bothered to update their product to work with the new version of Flash, and it has taken Macromedia, its developers, far too long to open it up this much.

But it does show that things can be improved, and that accessibility is possible.

Diminishing the web

It is truly scandalous that web designers and software companies can still get away with developing sites and releasing programs that are not fully accessible.

Why cannot we have a clear law which covers online services and shopping

It is as if the architect of a modern office block put lots of steps and narrow doors in it because they looked good and then said they did not have to worry about wheelchair users because there were not that many of them.

This is not just about blind or partially sighted people. Deaf people also have problems because of the increasing use of sounds to draw our attention to things like incoming e-mail or problems with programs.

People with physical disabilities can also find it hard to use keyboards or mice and need computers that can use alternative input devices. And people with learning disabilities may need sites that use simplified syntax and a limited vocabulary.

Some sites try to be accessible and they should be applauded. Many follow the standards set by the Web Accessibility Initiative, and the BBC has Betsie, which makes a text-only version of BBC web pages. But there are still vast areas of the web that remain inaccessible.

Something could be done about this. The UK's Disability Discrimination Act obliges shops and offices to be physically accessible to all.

The DDA applies to services as well as buildings, and the code of practice published when the Act became law in 2002 indicates that websites count as services. But nobody has yet tested this part of the law.

Until this is made clear then even though a shop has to have wide enough doors for a wheelchair, there is nothing to stop it building a Flash-based homepage that no screen reader can cope with.

Why cannot we have a clear law which covers online services and shopping, especially since the tools and the standards are there if people choose to use them?

The great English poet John Donne wrote: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind." Well, any site that is not fully accessible diminishes the web for us all, and we need to make sure that developers, companies and governments understand that.

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The Bill Thompson column is courtesy of BBC WebWise, part of BBC Education's ongoing campaign to teach people about the internet and how to use it. Bill is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology

See also:

13 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
18 Feb 02 | dot life
12 Mar 02 | Europe
18 Jan 99 | BETT 99
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