Removing road blocks to accessibility

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2006 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Several recent surveys have shown that the majority of websites are not fully accessible. This sorry state of affairs can be explained by various road-blocks in the development process:

  • Oblivious: most developers and commissioners of web sites are oblivious of the need to make web sites accessible to people with disabilities. Any web site developed in this environment is very unlikely to be accessible.
  • Complaisance: even if people are aware of the issue many will ignore it as being unimportant or irrelevant to their business.
  • Complexity: even when people want to commission an accessible site they find it is complex to define their requirements to ensure that the site will be accessible and remain so.
  • Ignorance: website developers have not been trained and do not understand the accessibility requirements nor do they understand the related standards, techniques and tools.
  • User Testing: web sites need to be accessible to people with a wide variety of disabilities. This makes user testing essential but at the same time difficult to organise effectively.
  • Degeneration: even a web site that was accessible when it was first built is likely to degenerate as new function and content is added. The maintenance process needs to guard against this trend.

An investigation by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), in the UK, highlighted the problem. The Commission then decided that the complexity of commissioning accessible web sites was a major road block.

The British Standards Institution (BSI), in conjunction with the DRC, has developed ‘PAS 78—A Guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites’. It should be an essential read for anyone involved with web site creation and is exceptional value at £30.

The document covers six key areas:

  • The accessible website process—guidance on building an accessible website from commissioning and developing it, through to publishing and maintaining it. This also includes guidance on contracting web design and accessibility auditing services.
  • Accessibility policy—its importance and how to define this for the website.
  • Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines—their importance in the context of accessibility issues, what they mean and which ones to follow.
  • Involvement of disabled people—in the requirements gathering, conceptual design and testing processes.
  • Conformance checking—guidance on adhering to it.
  • Additional accessibility provisions—elements additional to conformance to the WAI guidelines that can be useful but should not be considered essential.

The Bloor Research Accessibility Practice plans to use this document as a framework for more detailed research covering the standards, practices, services, technologies and products required to develop and run web sites.

PAS stands for Publicly Available Specification which means that it is a guide, and not a standard, but that in no way detracts from the importance or usefulness of the document.

After an organisation has decided to have an accessible site the first question is how to go about the commissioning. The problem has been that information about the requirements, standards and development processes have been spread across multiple organisations and it has been very difficult for anyone new to the area to feel that they had a complete and coherent understanding. The PAS puts all the essentials together with cross references to the detailed sources. To research the area from scratch and gain the same body of knowledge would take weeks, if not months, and would still leave the researcher with the nagging feeling they have missed something.

The PAS was developed by an expert team, led by Julie Howell of the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB), including representatives of: Abilitynet, BBC, Cabinet Office, Cxpartners (representing the Usability Professional Association), IBM, and University College London (UCL). The quality of this team and the reviewing of the document by over a hundred other experts ensured that the quality is high. The only caveat is that it has not been road-tested yet so there will be some improvements, corrections and additions over time. The plan is that the PAS will be reviewed formally in two years and the lessons learnt will be incorporated.

This Guide is probably as significant as the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative that it complements. It is relevant to any website development anywhere in the world and should have a readership far wider than the shores of Britain.