Accessibility and the public sector

Paul Boag

If you work for any kind of public sector organisation and are responsible for their web presence you will be all too aware of the term “accessibility”.

I have spent a considerable amount of time over the last couple of years working with heritage and conservation groups much of whose funding comes from central government bodies. Groups like the National Trust, areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks are all being encouraged by government to make their sites ‘accessible’.

So how exactly do you go about building a website with a very limited budget, that looks great, is available in welsh and accessible by the visually impaired! Sounds like a tall order doesn’t it. Well it is, but there are some imaginative solutions out there.

Like so many things in life web design is all about compromise. It involves compromises over bandwidth, browser type, usability, budget, timescales… the list could go on. The first question you have to ask when it comes to accessibility is how important is this really. To answer that you need to consider your user base. What percentage is going to be visually impaired? What percentage is going to speak welsh? How does that stack up against other features you believe would benefit the site but which wont fall within your budget if you spend the money on accessibility functions?

So far this is all sounding kind of depressing but there is hope. The trick with accessibility is to separate content from design. Once the content is held separately it is relatively easy to display it using different templates. That way you can have one template designed for the masses, which has all the latest bells and whistles, and one for the visually impaired which complies with the guidelines laid down by a group such as the RNIB. To see this process in action go to the Association of National Parks . This site displays the content in two templates, one for the visually impaired and one for the general public.

Of course a content management system that is able to separate content from design isn’t always applicable. It may prove too expensive for your organisation or simply isn’t compatible with your hosting environment. In that case a more imaginative approach is needed.

The National Trust faced just this kind of problem. To implement a full content management system across their entire site wasn’t feasible but they still wanted to make their website accessible. Their solution was to use something called cascading style sheets (CSS). These allowed the user to press a button and dynamically update the page. This would change the colour of background, enlarge text, increase contrast etc. This way the page could be made more readable by the visually impaired. To see this working visit the National Trust website and click on the visually impaired icon found on the footer of every page.

Whether you adopt a full content management system or decide to go for something more modest, the important thing is that you have carefully considered your approach to accessibility. Accessibility is a key component in good web design and should be something that is planned in from the beginning and not just tagged on after the site has gone live.