Innovations in website creation to improve accessibility for people with disabilities carry a lot of value for other groups, from users on mobile phones, through those on limited bandwidth, to surfers doing comparative shopping.
So says Charles McCathie-Nevile, accessibility specialist at the World Wide Web consortium (W3C), the international body that defines core web standards.
One of the simplest principles of accessibility is to have a text field attached to each graphic explaining what it is and what it does. This can be seen briefly on many existing sites before the graphic loads, or as a pop-up label on mousing over the graphic. The text can be read by a voice synthesiser, or reproduced on a Braille device for blind users. It also facilitates understanding by those with reduced cognitive ability.
If the site incorporates explicit information about its structure — how the various items of information on each page are related to one other — it will aid a blind person, or someone using a reduced keyboard to cope with limited mobility, to gain a full appreciation of the site, McCathie-Nevile says.
Text and structure, however, also play to the limited keyboard and display of mobile phones and PDAs. A text-backed site accessed through a non-graphical browser (or a conventional browser with graphics turned off) will considerably speed access for remote users on limited bandwidth links — a group forcefully advocating its case right now — he says.
XML-derived languages can be used to add explicit meaning to the bare words and graphics on the web page — to enable the user’s computer or other access device to recognise that this field represents the price of the pair of shoes identified in the adjacent field. That will facilitate automated comparison shopping, McCathie-Nevile says, because the machine can recognise and process the price and compare it with prices for similar items on other sites. The overarching XML framework will ensure that the identifier “this is the price field” in different (including non-English) XML-derived languages is identifiable as meaning the same thing.
The fuller information available to the blind user’s reading device or the comparison-shopping agent will also help internet integration of future appliances, such as the legendary net-capable fridge or washing-machine.
So how many website designers are seriously adopting these guidelines? “With the simple straightforward stuff, like text fields attached to graphics, there is starting to be a high proportion of sites that observe the guidelines,” he says. “But I haven’t yet come across any website that is fully compliant, even with phase 1 [of three phases in the W3C rules.]”
W3C’s prime accessibility target is the software industry creating web authoring tools, and here there has been notable success. Popular authoring suites like Macromedia’s Dreamweaver and Microsoft’s Front Page now have facilities to incorporate accessibility and routines to check a site’s compliance.
New laws in the US and the successful application of existing anti-discrimination law to inaccessible websites in Australia and Europe will act as a “stick” to encourage compliance, McCathie-Nevile says. But significant “carrots” also exist, such as access to a larger market — “10 to 20% of most populations have a disability; that’s a market of several hundreds of billions of dollars that can’t access the web yet, or couldn’t until recently.”
McCathie-Nevile was in New Zealand for one day last week to talk with local accessible website design company AccEase and attend a seminar.