Access all areas

Last month, Mark posed a deliberately provocative question, asking how websites should be designed in order to meet the needs of disabled visitors. This is potentially a hugely emotive subject. Some will argue that all websites should be accessible to everybody, while others may suggest that it is nonsense to spend significant amounts of the budget making websites usable for people who are totally outside your target audience. An example often quoted is that of a site advertising Xbox or PS2 games, and whether this needs to be accessible to blind people. Of course, the true answer lies somewhere in between, and it comes down to a matter of where you draw the line.

Access all areas

This is not an easy subject to talk or write about, as there are deep sensitivities and much political correctness involved. Were we even allowed to say ‘disabled’ back there? Or should we have said ‘less abled’? Do people have ‘problems’ or ‘issues’? Whatever we write is bound to upset someone, so please accept our apologies in advance for any clumsiness or ignorance in our handling of the subject. There does not appear to be a book ‘How to write about disabilities for dummies’, and if there were it wouldn’t be much help, because by the time we would finished reading it the rules would have changed again.

When it comes to website accessibility, we are not particularly helped by the law either. We do, of course, have a Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which was drafted by Mr William Hague, but despite claims you will hear from the accessibility lobby it is not entirely clear how, or even if, this law applies to the Internet. Various organisations have been talking about bringing test cases in order to clarify matters, but to date there is been a lot more chest beating and sabre rattling than real action.

However, does it really matter what the law does or does not specify? The fact is that there are people out there who are less able than the average, and shouldn’t we, therefore, be making an effort not to further disadvantage them? There are both moral and commercial reasons why the answer to that question should be ‘Yes’. We are not saying that you should automatically tear down your existing websites or spend fortunes to retro-fit accessibility options (although for certain kinds of public access and informational sites this is exactly what you should be doing.). We are asking you instead to consider accessibility whenever you design and build any new sites.

The easiest way to tackle accessibility is to take a moment to think about the various disabilities your site’s visitors might have. The Web is such a visual medium that sight problems must come fairly near the top of the list, but this broad category covers everything from total loss of sight through to less severe problems such as colour blindness. Blind users will probably be using screen-readers, so make sure your site’s text will work using those. Also ensure that your site properly supports large fonts for those with limited vision.

Colour blindness, which affects a significant number of people, is a particularly interesting challenge. Many site designers think that all you have to do is ensure that you deploy well-contrasting colours. Yes, that’s certainly important, but if you are selling merchandise you will also need to ensure you have included a sensible description of the colour in each item’s details. I’m not picking on Boden (www.boden.co.uk) for any other reason than that it happens to be among my bookmarks, but it does offer clothes in colours called Lobster and Peppermint Starburst. I have colour vision, so I can tell you that these are a sort of pink (they obviously mean cooked lobster) and a light blue/green, but what could a colourblind person make of such descriptions? Other site visitors might have hearing disabilities. You would think this wouldn’t be important with websites, but we recently saw an online product demo that relied on the audio soundtrack for the ‘now click “next” to continue’ message…

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