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Prioritising Web Accessibility – A Flawed Approach?
Last week, the Society of IT Managers (SOCITM) released the findings of their annual report on all UK Council websites – Better Connected 2012: a snapshot of all local authority websites. James Coltham reflects on the organization's mandate to prioritize website accessibility for tasks frequently performed online by persons with disabilities.
I was pleased that my organisation retained its maximum 4-star rating for a second year running (one of only 2 Councils to do so). I may blog more about that soon. But one thing caught my eye in the report which I thought was worthy of a quick post now. It was a recommendation relating to accessibility:
Websites must be accessible for disabled people. Priority should be given to ensuring that the tasks that people with disabilities are most likely to use are fully accessible - SOCITM: Better Connected 2012
It’s great that SOCITM clearly take accessibility seriously, and that it features prominently in their report. However, I have to say that I fundamentally disagree with this specific advice, and think it could be quite damaging. How can we be sure which tasks are “most likely to be used” by that audience? This could lead to some pretty dangerous assumptions. I remember someone on an online forum once asking “why would a disabled person be interested in a website about playing sport”? I doubt I need to say why that was a pretty daft question, but it’s sadly not uncommon. Any assumption about what people with disabilities may, or may not, be interested in will be flawed and most likely wrong.
And who are we talking about anyway? “People with disabilities” describes an awful lot of people, with a huge range of needs, interests and motivations (there are over 10 million disabled people in Britain). Sould we forget the lesser-used tasks? The whole point of prioritising is that you spend more time on some things, and less on others. Inherent in this advice, then, is that there will be certain tasks which you do not make fully accessible. The law requires you to make all of your website accessible, not just the bits that you think your users are most interested in.
Also, what do we mean by “fully accessible”? I assume this means that any user can access the content without any barriers. As stated above, that’s a requirement of all content on all local authority websites anyway. I would argue that it’s far more meaningful to consider the concept of enhanced accessibility – pages which not only meet the minimum standards of accessibility, but which go an extra step to make the content even easier to use for certain users. Examples of this might include BSL videos, audio widgets, Easy Read content, visual aids, etc.
Some of these can be really time-intensive and costly to produce (as my own experiences of producing BSL videos proved). In this case, I can see a benefit in identifying key content for which there would be a high likelihood that the user would especially benefit from enhanced accessibility. Again, though, this is very different to simply ensuring that all content meets basic accessibility standards.
Finally, is it really best to prioritise by content? W3C have some good practical advice for people wanting to improve the accessibility of their website, including a section on prioritisation:
[An] effective approach in most cases is to do all of the high impact and easy repairs while you are working on a page, template, style sheet, etc. Then address harder problems later. This approach has several advantages: it usually takes less time overall, and you get lots of changes done quickly. This helps demonstrate your commitment to improving the accessibility of your website as soon as is feasible - Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI): Improving the Accessibility of Your Website
This is arguably a better approach, and one which will have an impact across your site, rather than to specific pages only. So by all means prioritise – just make sure you’re getting those priorities right.
UK, Edinburgh-based James Coltham is a local, government web services manager by day; web, usability, social media and accessibility blogger at lunchtime; freelancer by night. Browse through more such blogs, here: http://prettysimple.co.uk/blog