Websites and the fourth plinth

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2005 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Trafalgar Square is famous for its column with a statue of Nelson at the top. But his is not the only commemorative sculpture in the square; there is a plinth at each corner of the square and three of them have monuments to worthy Britons. The fourth, originally built in 1841 (but lacking in funds to create a statue) remained empty for many years. More recently, in the modern, politically correct world it became impossible to agree on any suitable candidate. So it was decided that the plinth should be used to display the works of a series of modern artists, with a piece of modern sculpture being put on the plinth for a period of about a year and then replaced by a new piece by another artist. This has led to three fine pieces since 1999, which may have stretched some peoples’ views of modern art, but which were hardly controversial.

However, this all changed in the middle of this month when the latest piece was unveiled. It is a 3.5 metre high white marble sculpture of a naked lady, which will remain in place for 18 months. The controversy? Well, the sculpture is a portrait of disabled artist Alison Lapper when she was eight months pregnant; her disability is that she was born with only vestiges of arms and deformed legs. Outraged of Edgware (the New Tunbridge Wells!), thinks this is political correctness gone mad, a waste of public money and is unsuitable for the Square. I disagree. I think it is great to see a piece of modern art that has a political and social agenda it wants to forcefully put forward. Its message to all of us is that:

  • there are disabled people in the community
  • they want to be an integral part of the community (right at the heart of London)
  • they have pride (willing and wanting to be seen naked)
  • they want to do those things that we all want to do (e.g. in this case, as a female, be pregnant)

So what does that fairly lengthy introduction have to do with websites and IT in general?

Just this: the designers of any IT system, but especially websites that are very public, need to hear that message loud and clear. Go to Trafalgar Square, or look it up on a website, and ask yourself how you would explain to Alison, or to any other disabled person, why they are excluded from your website. This is a purely moral question, but should be followed by asking yourself how you can explain to your management that they are breaking the law.

So what is needed to make web sites compliant?

  1. Guidelines of best practice to explain what is required. This has been available from the W3C, as the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), for several years and will soon be updated.
  2. Laws to say that accessibility is important and mandatory. In the UK, this is the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and its enforcer, the Disability Rights Commission. In the US, it is the Rehabilitation Act Section 508 – and many other countries have similar laws.
  3. Recognition of the needs and benefits of conforming (legal, moral and financial) by those who commission websites. This is growing but is still very patchy and I hope that the sculpture ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’, and articles like this one, will increase the recognition.
  4. Recognition of the issue by web site designers – both external consultancies and internal webmasters – and the vocal insistence that they will only develop accessible sites. More examples of sites that conform, and the benefits their organisations gain from this, would help.
  5. Tools from vendors that make it easy to develop conformant sites. At the moment developers can blame their tools as these often make it difficult, or sometimes impossible, to do a good job. Vendors are waking up to this requirement and recent discussions I have had with Adobe (once considered an anathema to accessibility), IBM, XStandards, and others, show that it is possible.
  6. Better support for screen readers, screen magnifiers, and voice recognition software by the tool and browser vendors.
  7. Tools to test for conformance – both Adobe and Watchfire provide tools to test web pages during development.
  8. Tools for testing compliance of production web sites for accessibility and other related issues such as security, privacy and branding. SiteMorse, Watchfire and Lift are examples of tools in this space.
  9. Specialist consultancies for providing guidance on accessibility and running audits. The UK Web Design Association (UKWDA) and the Accessibility Forum are helpful pointers into this area.
  10. Tools for better understanding how web sites are used, or not used, such as speed-trap, that may help identify areas where accessibility, or even just usability, force people to give-up.

I would be interested in your comments on this article; what have I left out; what products or services are available that really help; and even what you think of the sculpture?