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Quality, Not Quantity

Voluntary guidelines on web accessibility are all very well, but there is nothing like a law for ensuring everyone falls into line. Such was the message to emerge from last month’s European Commission conference on digital inclusion held in Vienna.

Alexander Fase, Web Guidelines Project Manager at the Dutch government ICT agency ICTU, told delegates that his organisation had developed a non-technical, ‘quality’ approach to accessibility standards which focused on ensuring all information could be accessed through any channel, now and in the future.

Such an approach was vital in an ageing society, he said: it was estimated for example that the number of people in Holland aged over 55 would double by 2030, and the number of people with some level of impaired vision would double by 2020.

“Old-school websites are only re-usable in a limited way – they are technologically complicated, and you had to redesign for a new corporate identity,” Fase said. By contrast, the quality approach tries to ensure information will be available in the future, regardless of the emergence of new browsers and access devices. The approach is based around 125 quality requirements including keeping structure and design as separate as possible; and building websites according to the principle of ‘layered design’ (see
http://www.webguidelines.nl ).
His unit is also working on a business case for accessibility, to be published in 2009, Fase said.

One of the most powerful statistics offered by Fase was that of the increase in accessibility of central government websites in Holland since it became a legal requirement. “Now web guidelines are mandatory, the score on accessibility is 10 times better than average,” he said.

Matt May, Accessibility Engineer with Adobe Systems, agreed that the increasing use of multiple channels and devices to access web content meant that the basic requirements of what has been seen as accessibility for people with sensory impairments or disabilities are actually important for everybody.

“I’m using a small notebook with a limited display so adjustment of text size is a universal issue now.”

It is also vital to realise that most people creating web pages do not actually use HTML, but rather intermediary ‘authoring tools’ such as Dreamweaver or Microsoft Word; programming tools; database-backed tools; or user-generated content, May said. “Today, many people are creating web content but may have never seen the code,” he said.

This means that the World Wide Web Consortium’s ‘ATAG’ guidelines on the accessibility of web authoring tools are just as important as the consortium’s better-known web content accessibility guidelines, (WCAG) he said. “As an industry, standards are very important to us, because we can take them to our developers.”

One case study of a major European retail website which was given an accessibility overhaul found that even the largest and busiest sites can be improved without major disruption.

Voyages-SNCF, the ticket purchasing website of the French national railway, is the leading online retailer in France, turning over 1.86 billion euros of revenue in 2007 from some 700,000 daily users.

Christelle Lortet, e-Accessibility Project Officer at Voyages-SNCF, told the conference that accessibility had been a goal for the site for several years, with improvements made steadily as parts of the site entered their natural upgrade cycle. The organisation also funded accessibility training for everyone involved, including web developers, graphic designers and Lortet herself, as project manager.

There were three main reasons for the move: “It was our desire, and the law, and a competitive advantage.”

Lortet had a powerful message for those who think that making a website accessible means that one has to change its look and feel to something less sophisticated: on two slides, she showed what the Voyages-SNCF website looked like before its accessibility overhaul, and what it looked like afterwards. The two pages looked almost identical, with some small colour changes to improve contrast: the huge majority of changes are hidden in the code, she said. “This should convince any CEO who thinks that accessibility would force a company to change the design of its web page,” she said.

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