Web accessibility & business

Why is it important for a business to make its website accessible and how to go about achieving it.

Background

On the web you can never be certain how the end user will view your web pages. Accessible website design, therefore, means designing for diversity. An accessible website works on a variety of different web browsers and hardware platforms (old and new). Site content will be available to someone with a 21" screen using the latest Windows PC, to someone viewing with WebTV, or a disabled person accessing the Internet through a speech-enabled device. It will be flexible enough to accommodate the access needs of the end user, e.g., a visually impaired user may need to enlarge text or change colours on the page

Why is web accessibility important

Accessible web design is important to businesses for legal, ethical and commercial reasons:

Legal

The Disability Discrimination Act requires organisations in the UK to make online information accessible to disabled people. Court action has never been taken in Britain although there have been high profile cases elsewhere. The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) intends to formally investigate online service providers in spring 2003. Court action on the grounds of discriminatory practice could be costly and damaging to public relations.

Ethical

It makes good business sense for organisations to demonstrate an inclusive and ethical approach – a good image will have an impact on customer perception and buying behaviour.

Commercial

Some organisations may be reluctant to prioritise web accessibility if they believe legal and ethical issues are the only driving forces. However, accessible websites have advantages: Websites designed to be accessible will attract a larger number of potential customers. The DRC found that disabled people in the UK have a combined spending power of £50 bn, yet still have difficulties gaining access to goods and services. Accessible websites are usually more ‘search engine friendly’ and, therefore, more likely to be found by potential customers. An accessible website, created in accordance with the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C] Accessibility Guidelines, costs less to maintain, and is ‘future proofed’ – more likely to continue working as browsers and hardware are updated. Accessible web design is important for organisations attempting to attract grant aid or funding, or contracts from public bodies. In the European Year of the Disabled 2003 the European Commission is more likely to consider funding organisations, which uphold the EC’s e-accessibility aims.

How do I achieve web accessibility?

Legally speaking, you achieve accessibility if your site is not deemed to discriminate against a user on the basis of their impairment. This is determined by how your site ‘measures up’ when judged against the W3C Accessibility Guidelines and the Disability Discrimination Act. The W3C Guidelines identify three levels of web accessibility: Level one compliance covers basic access issues, e.g., ensuring that all graphics have text descriptions (Alt tags). Level two compliance ensures that colour contrasts do not cloud legibility, that standard mark-up language is used to create well-structured documents and that navigation is clear and well organised. Level three compliance provides more advanced techniques, some not yet supported by current browsers. The level of accessibility you aspire to should be determined by the potential return on investment. For many companies level one compliance is adequate. However many people will still find it difficult to access your site. Achieving level two compliance will make a real impact on the number of people who can use your site. Ultimately all organisations should aspire towards level three compliance. Website accessibility is an on-going process not a one-off activity. Organisations, particularly larger enterprises, should develop a web accessibility policy and implementation plan. Objectives include: Deciding on the standards you will measure your site against. Auditing existing web pages as to their accessibility and how much work needs done. Testing pages using auditing tools such as Bobby and against different browsers and hardware platforms (both Mac and PC). Starting by making popular pages accessible. Ensuring that all new pages are designed to be accessible. Ensuring you have the tools that help you design and maintain accessible sites. Budgeting for training to develop expertise within your organisation.

Actions and Next Steps

Develop a web accessibility policy and implementation plan following the objectives included in ‘How do I achieve web accessibility?’ If building a new website, ensure that the web designer has expertise. Ask for examples of accessible sites they have designed. If designing the website in-house, budget for web accessibility training for web designers and content managers. Build the site using standard mark-up language [e.g. HTML); this will enable the site to work on a wide range of hardware and software. Use the techniques outlined within the W3C Accessibility Guidelines to ensure content will be flexible enough for many users’ needs.

Headscape

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