What Does Accessibility Really Mean?

“What does “Web accessibility” mean? To me, it means that anyone using any kind of Web browsing technology must be able to visit any site and get a full and complete understanding of the information contained there, as well as have the full and complete ability to interact with the site.”

– (Chuck Letourneau, President of Starling Access Services and co-chair of the WAI Page Author Guidelines)

Many small and medium business owners (as well as some web designers) have only a vague idea about accessibility. For most, if there is a way to resize the text, to make it larger for visually impaired users, then the site is “accessible”. However, nearly all browsers today have the ability to resize text built in, so accessibility must go further if it’s to achieve any real benefit.

Accessibility on the web can be broken down into two components: 1. making a web site accessible to as many human users as possible, regardless of physical or mental abilities, and 2. making a web site accessible to as many devices as possible (and note here we include software as well as hardware as a “device”).

For the majority of the history of the world wide web, it has been a predominantly visual medium, so it’s logical that the focus of accessiblity has been on improving readablity for those with visual impairments. In addition to resizable type, accomodations can also be made for type style (font), as well as type and background colours.

More recently, the web has blossomed into a full-fledged multimedia experience, with the proliferation of audio and video files. With this change, accessibility has also had to encompass the idea of accomodating hearing-impaired users. How? Basically, W3C’s WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) call for each audio and video file to have an accompanying transcript (or captioning in the case of video) of any spoken elements. For many businesses, this would place a huge demand on IT resources, so few have been willing or able to comply. Complicating matters is the way closed captioning is done in broadcast television is a bit trickier on the web since there is no standard way to deliver video as there is in television (at least on a national, if not world-wide, basis). Luckily, legislation has allowed for businesses to tailor their compliance with accessibility requirements based on what is “reasonable”.

That brings us to the topic of legal issues. Can a business have a lawsuit brought against it for not complying with web accessibility legislation? The short answer is yes, but it’s not likely. There have been no cases which have ended up in court in the UK, although there have been some successful prosecutions in other countries. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time, but there are a few factors which would prevent a case going to court. The first is that any company who is on the receiving end of allegations of producing an inaccessible website would be well advised to simply fix the issue rather than fight it in court. (A web designer’s hourly rate is still cheaper than a lawyer’s!) Even if the business decided to go to court, the public relations nightmare and impact on the bottom line that would ensue would make it not worth the effort.

The UK Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) that came into full force in 2004 covers any service, not just websites. It’s widely expected that as and when a case does make it to court, the W3C guidelines will be the yardstick used to measure compliance. The law states that businesses “must take reasonable steps to change a practice which makes it unreasonably difficult for disabled people to make use of its services”. Well, what is “reasonable”? The court may well decide some of the guidelines are reasonable and some are not.

What does making your website acessible entail? How much time and money needs to be invested to make a site accessible? There’s no short answer here as each site varies in size and complexity. However, the good news is that by enlisting the help of a competent designer or agency (such as St Albans Web Design), many of the accessibility requirements will be met simply by following web design and development best practices. For example, using alt text inside non-decorative image tags should be standard practice for the vast majority of web designers, and it also satisfies one of the WCAG priorities.

Another best practice would be using what is termed “semantic markup”, which means using appropriate tags around each block of text. A heading would have a heading tag around it and a paragraph would have a paragraph or “p” tag around it, instead of non-semantic methods, such as enclosing all text in “p” tags and using font styling to indicate which blocks are header, captions, etc. Semantic markup also satisfies an accessibility requirement by making it easier for assistive technologies such as screen readers to make sense of the structure of the information.

An interesting and recent twist in the area of web accessibility has been the withdrawing of support for the nearly 10-year-old browser Internet Explorer 6. Many sites, even commonly known large scale sites, have begun to withdraw their support for older borwsers. If you visit YouTube.com with IE 6 today, you’ll see a message informing you that the browser is no longer supported. Once again, the resource issues involved in maintaining the code to make a site viewable on an older broswer are working against full accessibility. If more major sites move in this direction, the net effect will be to put pressure on users and corporations to phase out older broswers in favour of new ones.

Can you create a site that complies with every WCAG guideline? Probably not. And any web designer or agency that claims they can is probably exaggerating (to put it nicely). And anyone who claims they can create a site that complies with UK accessibility law is also bluffing as there is no case law history (legal precedent) in the UK. Besides the resource issues outlined above, many of the guidelines are ambiguous and/or difficult to test. Consider this one:

1.4.7 Low or No Background Audio: For prerecorded audio-only content that (1) contains primarily speech in the foreground, (2) is not an audio CAPTCHA or audio logo, and (3) is not vocalization intended to be primarily musical expression such as singing or rapping, at least one of the following is true: (Level AAA)

  • No Background: The audio does not contain background sounds.
  • Turn Off: The background sounds can be turned off.
  • 20 dB: The background sounds are at least 20 decibels lower than the foreground speech content, with the exception of occasional sounds that last for only one or two seconds.

Unless you have a way to measureforeground and background audio levels, compliance with the above requiremnt would be quite a challenge. Our lesson here is that accessibility is something that we can and should always work towards, but may never fully achieve. And that’s OK.