User-Friendly Web Sites for the Disabled

  thegreypanther 11:46 20 Apr 04

Last week there was a news item in which the Diasability Rights Commission stated that "website operators who fail to make their sites user-friendly for disabled customers face unlimited compensation payments and legal costs of up to £50,000".
I run a website for a British Army regiment, and do this as an "enthusiastic amateur" as opposed to a website design professional. This web site has now grown to several hundred pages in size, and keeps the regiment happy.
However, I am now very concerned that this site could fall foul as regards being user-friendly for disabled customers, but don't know how to go about testing the site in this respect.
I have used an HTML Validator program to check out the coding on all pages, and the current users all appear to be highly satisfied.
But HOW does one set about checking a site as complying with the Diasability Rights Commission requirements?
Can I submit this website for checking in this respect? If so, who would check it out?
Any advice will be gladly received.

  Sir Radfordin 12:06 20 Apr 04

Two links for you:

RNIB | click here

Bobby | click here

The RNIB have an amount of informaiton on their website and will give you some guidelines. Bobby is, as their site says, comprehensive web accessibility software tool designed to help expose and repair barriers to accessibility and encourage compliance with existing accessibility guidelines.

A well designed website should be accessible for anyone with a disability or visual impariment. The RNIB is very much against the development of 'sister' sites where you have one for 'normal' people and one for 'disabled' people.

(NB: My comments are not intended to cause offence to anyone reading. Words have been chosen because of common understanding.)

  PurplePenny 13:51 20 Apr 04

Some more useful links:

click here W3C's accessibilty guidelines - be warned they make heavy reading.

click here W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative.

click here Wave - WebAim's accessibility checker which uses a visual interface to show good and bad points. It can be downloaded to your browser allowing you to check any page that you visit.

click here Colour-blindness simulator (surely one of the most common "disabilities" affecting web use and yet hardly ever mentioned)

click here A-Prompt - similar to Bobby but it can be downloaded and used locally instead of online.

click here Lynx simulator - see how your page appears in a text browser.

You probably guessed that I've had to read up on accessibilty. I don't know how compliant sites are expected to be, I haven't read the Disability Rights Commission's report as educational sites have to comply with the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act (SENDA). Here are guidelines for educational sites they might be stricter (but then again they might not):

Provide descriptions for non-visual browsers - use ALT, TITLE, LABEL and SUMMARY to provide alternative text for images, explanations of tables, forms etc. Complex images that require explanation require the use of LONGDESC. Video and audio need transcipts and/or description.

Use meaningful text for hyperlinks. Don't use "click here".

Use cascading style sheets for layout and style. Use heading tags in a logical descent and not for format. (H1 should be the main heading. The next subheading should be H2 etc.). Avoid FONT. Replace B with STRONG and I with EM.

Ensure that pages function without plugins.

Provide HTML alternatives and NOSCRIPT if a script is necessary to the functioning of your page.

Frames - avoid them. If you do use them use NOFRAMES to add alternative content.

Tables - check that they make sense when read in linear fashion down the page. If you use Opera you can turn off tables to see what this looks like.

Always write valid code (which you've already checked).

Finally the two nasty ones:

Use layout tables sparingly :-( I think that the W3C guidleines may say not to use tables for layout at all but all the accessibility checkers allow you to provided you say so in SUMMARY (thank goodness).

Don't open new pages.... well that's what the W3C guide says but again the accessibility checkers are more flexible. If you open a new page you must warn the reader. (I use "[opens in new window], a colleague adds it to the title of the link).

Oh goodness - I keep thinking of more but many of them are for the higher levels of accessibility compliance so I'll shut up until after I've had a look at the Disability Rights Commission report.

It isn't as bad as it looks, honest. I went to a seminar on web accessibility and they *seemed* to be saying that as long as you've made a real effort to comply you won't get into trouble if you don't achieve total compliance.

WebAIM they make the very valid point that in making a web site accessible for 10% of users it shouldn't be made *less* accessible for the other 90%.

I hope I haven't overwhelmed you. I should have put those points into order - there are three levels of compliance and the Priority 1 level is quite easy to achieve.


  IClaudio 16:52 20 Apr 04

... and one has to wonder what website would have to pay 'unlimited compensation'? What could possibly be so damaging?

  PurplePenny 19:30 20 Apr 04

"I'm not willing to have yellow text on a black background throughout with no images."

That is what is refreshing about the WebAIM site. They want sites to be accessible but still visually appealing and interesting. They give as an examples The CSS Zen Garden (where the same HTML is given totally different looks by the use of CSS) and Eric Meyer's Complex Spiral which is not just visually appealling it is downright stunning.... it also completely accessible. Read the article for yourselves and if you've never seen the sites mentioned above be sure to take a look at them (links in the article):

click here


  PurplePenny 19:42 20 Apr 04

Another thing to bear in mind is that it is not just one disablilty being addressed. Unfortunately what might benefit one group of people could disadvantage others. For instance I went to a seminar on dyslexia. The speaker said that many dyslexics find a *serif* font easier to read because the serifs form a line across the page and help to prevent the words from straying into other lines. Yet in general serif fonts are not good online. She also said that some dyslexics find a coloured font on a pastel background easier to read - which drew howls of protest from the people who had attended the seminar on visual-impairment the day before, where they had been told *never* to put a coloured font on a coloured background!

PP (I'll shut up now)

  Taran 19:54 20 Apr 04

I think that that the bulk of the argument will boil down to discrimination at one level or another. Since software and (in some cases) modified hardware can allow people with various disabilities to use computers and access web content, it seems only fair from a moral standpoint, without even considering the legal issues, to include them in your intended catchment audience.

The trouble is that HTML was never really intended as a presentation language and it has been thoroughly abused and stretched to its limits to achieve the various layouts and sites we see on the web these days.

This is why XHTML and CSS are currently so important. They allow absolute layout control for format and presentation while still allowing your page/site content to be properly rendered in text only browsers or easily read by screenreaders. Not only that, but once you get your head around CSS and XHTML you can actually do a lot more with a lot less code, so in theory your pages load up far faster.

Without going off on one here, you can wrap an entire page content into a few <div> tags that reference their formatting from CSS code. This can give you a full table layout with positioning, height and width and all kinds of other table-like things, but without any table HTML code cluttering up the page.

The downside here is browser support. All mainstream web browsers claim full CSS support but the truth is quite different. IE, of all browsers, has more issues than you can shake a stick at with CSS2 but CSS1 is, in most cases, quite safe.

All the other browsers have their own similar problems, so we have a bit of a quandary here. Do we code to full accessibility standards and learn all the necessary browser hacks to keep things as they should be in all browsers, or do we accept that, at the moment anyway, web browsers are, in fact, one of the main weak links in the chain and settle for a majority compatability ?

It's a difficult line to try and walk, but they key is to try and get it mostly right.

Time for me to take my medicine again methinks...

  PurplePenny 21:11 20 Apr 04

.. this time it was me that did that :-)

I think that browsers will have to catch up eventually. They've already made huge strides since the totally non-standard days of the version 4s. Netscape lost a huge share of the market because they left it so long between 4 and 6 but they did it for good reason. Now IE needs to catch up with Netscape/Moz for standards support. Oddly IE for Mac is better behaved than IE6 for Windows yet it came out earlier. If they could get it right in the Mac version why didn't they do it for Win.?


  Sir Radfordin 22:05 20 Apr 04

They key word in all of this is ACCESSIBILITY. A site that is designed with clean and correct HTML and that does not depend on images/colour to convery meaning will be accessible to most people. It should be in everyones interst to design a site that is accessibile because anyone is a potential customer. If your site can't be viewed be 10% of the population that is 10% of the population who will never be your customer.

click here and you will see an interesting solution to the problem of background colours as mentioned by PP. In the bottom right corner you have a menu where you can set the background colour of your choice. That is one way that the site can be designed for the majority but can be made accesible to a minority if they need it.

  thegreypanther 11:57 23 Apr 04

The response to my initial query has been extraordinary. The advice provided has reassured me, and at the same time provided some really useful guidance.
I sincerely hope that this topic will be given a wider airing, - maybe an article in PC Advisor?, as there are clearly a number of issues as regards efficient web site design which it wouldn't hurt "enthusiastic amateurs" such as myself to bear in mind.
The regimental web site which I have been running for some while now is for the Green Howards, - click here. The regiment seems to like it, so hopefully I can keep the site on the correct side of the Disability Rights Commission!

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