Ask anyone who knows me and you will quickly learn I know nothing about football. However recently I have found myself surfing around the Manchester United Football site because it is at the center of an argument about accessibility.
Two sites is better than one?
Manchester United have recently launched a new site which includes a separate accessible version to cater for those with disabilities. An obviously enough step you would think. It is certainly an approach that has been adopted by many large web sites including the BBC. What is more it has gained them a lot of positive press coverage and even won them an award. It is certainly an approach I myself would have taken until relatively recently. After all surely it is better to cater for the specific needs of the disabled rather than designing one site that fails to meet the needs of any of its target audience.
So why the argument?
So why have they drawn criticism from the likes of SitePoint’s Trenton Moss, accessify.com and even Matt May from the W3C? Why do people object so strongly to a separate site approach? Here are some of the key arguments:
Accessible sites often lack the same level of content
Despite the best intentions it is often the case that an accessible site doesn’t contain the depth of content or the richness of experience that the main site has. This is especially true when the accessible version is fundamentally a text only version and so losses any of the graphical content of the main site. In short those unfortunately enough to be using the accessible version become second class citizens. This is certainly true of the accessible version of the Manchester United site which only has a fraction of the content available on the main site.
Accessible sites are often hard to find
It is truly ironic that the link to the accessible version of a web site is so often the hardest link to find! This in itself says a lot about how those with accessibility needs are viewed by the sites designers. I apologise for picking on Manchester United yet again but I challenge you to find the accessibility site from their "standard site".
Build and maintainance issues
Taking out the morale dimension to this discussion there are good financial and practical reasons to avoid having a separate accessible web site. Separate sites are more expensive to develop and much harder to maintain. Unless you are running a content management system that deals with accessible sites (which are in themselves expensive) you will quickly find yourself updating content in two places so doubling your workload.
Separate accessible sites are not compatible with WAI guidelines
According to Matt May from the W3C you cannot claim to be anymore than priority one compliant if you run a separate accessible web site. He refers to the WAI guidelines for priority one compliancy which says:
He goes on to say that "best efforts" does not mean no effort at all and this phrase is not a magic get out of jail free card. He argues that there are few reasons why it is necessary to build a separate accessible version with the advent of web standards.
Its not a black and white issue
In my opinion one of the most powerful reasons against the two site approach is that accessibility isn’t black and white. What criteria defines if a user needs to use the accessible version of a site? Is an elderly person mean ‘t to use an accessible site just because they have failing eyesight and some motor control problems? Should somebody with attention deficit disorder have to use a text only version of the site just because they find animation on the main site distracting? Most of these types of people wouldn’t consider themselves disabled and neither should they. Why should they be forced into using a site that isn’t appropriate for them.
I think the problem is that many web designers are afraid of accessibility. They do not understand how to make a web site accessible and so they would prefer to isolate the problem in a separate site. Also they suffer from many misconceptions about accessible sites such as it is going to compromise their design. However the consequences of these attitudes is that they are in danger of seriously alienating their target audience. I do not have a particular axe to grind when it comes to accessibility. However from a purely pragmatic approach it seems ridiculous to segregate large numbers of your potential user base simply because they are old, have a disability or are just using technology that does not conform to the latest standards. Manchester United Football club could do well to learn this lesson.