I recently stumbled across this press release on the DRC web site announcing that they had commissioned the British Standards Institution to produce a Publicly Available Specification (PAS) for web accessibility.
A PAS is not a full British Standard but is developed using the same rigorous processes. The DRC are supporting a PAS on website accessibility as it can be introduced more quickly than a British Standard that can often take several years to be completed. The other advantage of supporting a PAS is that it can be updated frequently.
This announcement comes after their formal investigation into the issues that disabled people face when using websites. This investigation concluded that despite the fact that 97% of large organisations claim to be aware that web accessibility is an important issue only 19% of their websites conformed to even the most basic level of accessibility.
I have to confess I have mixed feelings about the announcement. On one hand, I welcome the fact that the government is taking an active role in increasing awareness of website accessibility. Nevertheless, I have fears this could ultimately lead to yet another list of checkpoints that web designers have to conform to without necessarily tackling some of the fundamental questions of accessibility.
A box ticking exercise?
The problem with checkpoints and legislation is that it becomes a box ticking exercise. If you can tick all of the boxes, you know that your ass is covered and that is all that matters. This approach is more to do with avoiding prosecution than it is to do with actually making websites more accessible.
Web accessibility is not black and white
Unfortunately, web accessible is not a black and white area. Many challenges both technical and financial cloud the issue. I was recently reading an article by Mike Davidson that beautifully summed up the extent of the problem. Sometimes I feel that web designers and website owners have been vilified for not making their sites accessible when they are just a part of the problem. Even those that do wish to ensure their sites are accessible find the reality of web site accessibility a long way from the theory.
Cost vs. Benefit
The guidance I would like to see from government is not another set of technical checkpoints. Rather we need some advice about the morale questions relating to web accessibility, in particular, the issue of cost vs. benefit. How much time and money should we spend making our sites accessible for what can sometimes be a very small audience?
Mike Davidson gave an excellent real world example of this in his article. He talked about the fact that some people, due to congenital obesity, cannot make it through a standard doorway. Does that mean all doorways should be twice as wide? David argues the answer is almost certainly no because the amount of work involved in widening all the doors in the UK outweighs the benefits received by a very small number of people. OK this is an extreme example and perhaps obviously absurd but the question is where do you draw the line. Government should be helping with this kind of morale decision rather than dictating technical requirements that will quickly become obsolete.