Web accessibility the OZeWAI

Specialists in website "usability" are beginning to see accessibility for disabled users as a lucrative market, says Graham Oliver, director of accessible web consultancy AccEase.

Specialists in website “usability” are beginning to see accessibility for disabled users as a lucrative market, says Graham Oliver, director of accessible web consultancy AccEase.

The factors that make a website accessible to a disabled user, or to a rural user on limited bandwidth, are rather different from those that make a site easy to use for an able-bodied user on a wider band link, though there are naturally elements in common.

The change in focus is “certainly a clear trend in Victoria and New South Wales”, he says, having recently attended a conference in Melbourne on web accessibility, called OZeWAI. A key cause is the passage of the Australians with Disabilities Act, a parallel to the US Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring public-sector bodies to provide a wide range of facilities to people with disabilities on equal terms.

A successful case brought by a blind man last year against the Sydney Olympics organising committee, SOCOG, under human rights legislation was also influential, Oliver says. And the move is not just from a sense of altruism; developers are “following the money” now Australian organisations have a heightened awareness of accessibility needs.

While private companies are not bound by the ADA, its passage means accessibility is now “on their radar”, says Oliver.

New Zealand has no equivalent legislation, but equal access for disabled people is required by the Human Rights Act. No complaints have so far been made under that act in respect of web services.

The perception of a large potential market in rural areas is leading web designers to give attention to the aspects that make sites more accessible for those users too, Oliver says.

Web authoring tool vendors, whom Oliver flagged last year as a significant target for accessibility promoters, are coming to the party, he says. The leader in his view is Macromedia, “which has clearly decided it wants to own the accessibility [market] space”. Macromedia’s Dreamweaver in its latest version has good facilities for creating accessible sites, he says, but users now have to upgrade to it.

Vendors of web-publishing tools outside the website mainstream, such as courseware, should be aware of accessibility needs too, he says. There were some very negative comments made at the conference about the lack of such facilities in some courseware.

Any product used to create web content is a “web authoring tool” and should comply with the WAI guidelines, he says.

At the same time, he cautions against facile statements by providers on compliance and trust in automated compliance testing suites such as Bobby, used by the New Zealand government. Compliance is a matter of interpreting the guidelines carefully, he says.

There were 150 people at the Melbourne conference though only two New Zealanders. The other was Rebecca Cox from designers CWA New Media. The WAI acronym refers to the Web Accessibility Initiative, set up by international web standards body W3C.

Disclaimer: Stephen Bell’s wife, Robyn Hunt, is a director of AccEase.

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