By Jonathan Hassell
Many people struggle with reading text on websites, particularly those with dyslexia, vision impairments, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD and the multiple minor impairments associated with ageing.
While web browsers do include facilities to help these users such as the ability to change text size or colour or use your own style-sheets, many people are not able to find or use the browser controls to take advantage of them.
The situation is even worse for mobile web access, as most mobile browsers do not even include these facilities.
A 2003 study by Forrester Research for Microsoft found that 57% of all computer users would benefit from the use of assistive technology, yet figures for the UK show that only between 6%-8% of disabled people are actually making use of it. Even taking possible differences between US and UK into account, this is a huge gap. It could help explain the fact that disabled people’s use of the internet is lower than that of the general population.
Put plainly, for a lot of disabled people as well as our ageing population, our current accessibility models aren’t working. They require too much from users to get things to work.
As an attempt to address this problem, the BBC is testing a new tool to allow users to change the way text is presented on the more than three million web pages published by the organisation.
While including a text-resizer or style-switcher tool on a website is not in itself a new idea, the scope of the new tool – called MyDisplay – is what makes it different.
The tool enables commonly-requested alterations to be made, such as changing the text size and text and background colours. However, rather than restricting text changes to three sizes, it includes the ability to change the text to any size; change the font type; alter character spacing; remove italics; and force all lettering into lowercase – all preferences requested by consulting different sets of disabled users. And rather than restricting colour changes to four choices, it offers a choice of some 44 themes developed through user-research, and if that is not sufficient, also allows complete customisation to whatever other colour combinations the user might want.
The tool is free, and works on any computer and browser, even on smartphones like the iPhone or Android phones. It’s really simple to turn on, works on computers with locked-down browser and operating settings, and does not require any downloads. It also allows users to store their settings in a secure ‘BBC-iD’ and reuse them across devices. So you could set your preferences on a PC at work, and then use them on your Mac laptop at home, or your smartphone on the way home.
The BBC has already user-tested MyDisplay with a large number of users during its development, but we are now keen for more people to try the tool and offer us their feedback before deciding whether it’s ready to launch.
So if you think you could benefit from such a tool please visit
and give MyDisplay a try. And, most importantly, let the BBC know what you think via the feedback form you’ll find there.
If the response to MyDisplay’s trial is favourable, it may become a permanent feature of bbc.co.uk, and possibly also be included on other websites so users can use their preferences on more of their web journeys.
NOTE: Jonathan Hassell is Head of Usability and Accessibility, BBC Future Media.