Page last updated at 08:37 GMT, Monday, 22 December 2008

New guidelines boost web access

By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website

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Visually impaired tester Hazel Dudley uses the Jaws voice system to find out how easy it is to surf price comparison sites. Her ratings are personal and do not represent a scientific appraisal of the site.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has announced a new standard to make sites more accessible to older and disabled people.

Version 2.0 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) will apply to text, images, audio and video.

It also covers web applications and is said to give developers more flexibility than the old guidelines.

According to the consortium, WCAG 2.0 should also be easier to understand and use.

The guidance is designed to address barriers encountered by people with visual, hearing, physical, cognitive and neurological disabilities and older people with access needs.

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Tester Chris Markley shows how his dyslexia inhibits his ability to use price comparison sites. His ratings are personal and do not represent a scientific appraisal of the sites.

WCAG 2.0 explains how to make content:

  • Perceivable - including descriptive text for images, audio captions, flexibility of layout and colour contrast
  • Operable - making sites usable with keyboards and improving navigation
  • Understandable - making content easier to read and input more logical
  • Robust - ensuring that content and applications are compatible with assistive technology such as screen readers and magnifiers

"WCAG 2.0...can help ensure that the web stays open to people with disabilities even as we continually introduce new technologies," said Gregg Vanderheiden, co-chair of the WCAG working group.

"WCAG 2.0 represents the outcome of a major collaborative effort, and its final form is widely supported by industry, disability organisations, research and government."

Dr Vanderheiden says this is important if the guidelines are to become a unifying, international standard for web accessibility.

Publication comes shortly after the British Standards Institute (BSI) issued a draft standard on accessible websites.

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Tester Nicola Keary's non-specific arm pain (formerly known as repetitive strain injury), reduces her ability to use some price comparison sites. Her ratings are personal and do not represent a scientific appraisal of the sites. Since this trial was filmed, confused.com has redesigned its website to cater more for people with disabilities.

The standard - BS 8878 - gives advice on process rather than technical or design issues, so should complement WCAG 2.0.

In particular, the draft standard recommends the involvement of disabled people in the development of websites and suggests automated tools to test for accessibility.

BSI has published a good practice guide - based on BS 8878 - which reminds organisations of their legal responsibilities for web accessibility.

The guide urges them to nominate a specific individual or departments to ensure compliance.

"Once published, this standard will be a fantastic tool for organisations whishing to understand their responsibilities in enabling disabled people to use web content," said Julie Howell who chairs the committee that drafted the standard.

The simultaneous publication of the British Standard and WCAG 2.0 have been widely welcomed.

"WCAG 2.0 coincides neatly with the release of British Standard 8878," said Leonie Watson, director of accessibility at web design consultant, Nomensa.

"BS 8878 is aimed at non-technical professionals who are responsible for the development and maintenance of websites, so it's the perfect complement to the more technical guidance found in WCAG 2.0."

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Robin Christopherson of the charity AbilityNet says most websites fail to cater for people with disabilities.

User experience

The BBC News website invited three people with disabilities to point out the barriers they encounter when using websites.

The testers were asked to look at price comparison sites as an example of a typical task many people perform online.

The testers found big differences in the ease with which they navigate around sites.

One of the most popular sites was PricebyPrice.com, which was partly funded by disability charities.

However, blind tester Hazel Dudley gave uSwitch.com the same rating. All of the scores were personal opinions and were not intended to be exhaustive scientific appraisals.

Since conducting these trials, Confused.com says it has updated its website to improve access for people with disabilities.

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