Imagine turning away 15% of potential UK customers – eight million people – with a total spending power of £50 billion a year. Disability organisations say this is just what most companies are doing by offering websites that cannot be used easily by disabled people – and on top of lost sales they risk being taken to court.
The daft thing is that websites that are easy to use for disabled people have been shown to be easier also for able-bodied visitors – and bring more business. Yet awareness among website designers of disabled people’s needs – and interest in meeting them – is low, even though there is a good chance that one day those designers will themselves become disabled in one way or another, if only through age.
First, the law. In the UK the Disability Discrimination Act requires a company to “take reasonable steps to change a practice, policy or procedure which makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people to make use of its services”.
Websites are mentioned specifically, with several references, including: “An airline company provides a flight reservation and booking service to the public on its website. This is a provision of a service and is subject to the Act.”
No lawsuits have been brought against UK companies yet, but the Disability Rights Commission says it is only a matter of time, pointing to successful cases in Australia and the US.
DRC chairman Bert Massie said: “Where the response is inadequate, the industry should be prepared for disabled people to use the law to make the web a less hostile place. We shall be vigorous in the use of enforcement powers. These range from investigations which can lead to sanctions against website owners, to supporting test cases brought by individual disabled people. The DRC is determined this new and powerful technology does not leave disabled people behind.”
At the moment, it seems technology is certainly racing ahead. The DRC’s own study of 1,000 websites run by UK organisations found 81% failing to meet the basic guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative, which have become an ad hoc international standard.
The guidelines define specific design issues, called checkpoints. The DRC found that across the 1,000 websites an average of eight checkpoints were violated per home page. And the number of violation occurrences across all these checkpoints was a massive 108 per page.
Not all the problems apply to all disabled users: impairment groups include blind people who use screen reading software with speech or Braille output; partially sighted people who use text magnification; those with learning difficulties, including dyslexia; physically impaired people whose lack of dexterity or movement control might prevent them from using a mouse or even a keyboard; and deaf people.
Many people could fit into one of these categories temporarily, perhaps after breaking an arm or suffering a mild stroke. The DRC and other specialist organisations agree on the key design issues for disabled users.
“Top of the list – and the easiest to remedy – is image labelling,” said Robin Christopherson, web consultancy manager at charity AbilityNet, which advises disabled people, employers and others on IT.
“Visually impaired people depend on screen reading software and speech output to read text labels attached to images, but these labels are often uninformative or absent. Without them, navigation is guesswork. Imagine driving on a motorway where the junction exit signs are blank.”
Labels should also be attached to links to other pages. A label that simply says ‘click here’ without saying what is at the other end is not much use.
Web browsers typically offer facilities for enlarging text, but this cannot be done easily if text on a web page is hard-coded, said Christopherson. Some sites carry a watermark, which adds to confusion. Both features largely rule out 1.6 million visually impaired customers.
Pictures of text are often used instead of text. This means visually impaired or dyslexic users again cannot modify the size or contrast, and if the content is not labelled it cannot be read by a screen reader.
Other problems for people using screen readers, or who are partially sighted, include poor contrast of text to background, the related issue of inappropriate use of colour, and arty fonts that are difficult to read.
Sites with moving images can forget about potential business from people who cannot use a mouse, or have a cognitive problem including epilepsy, or are visually impaired and use speech output.
Ideally, captions, transcripts or audio descriptions should be available. Cluttered layout, complex page structure and confusing site navigation can be obstacles to visually impaired people or those with dyslexia, learning difficulties and short memory or attention span. These last two groups can also be put off by complex text.
Much of this boils down to thinking about users – disabled or not – rather than clever design. As Christopherson put it: “When we seek information, services or goods online we are not seeking a life changing experience but speed and efficiency.”
Website designers leave many users – potential customers – behind in other ways, claimed accessibility specialist and chief information architect at Internet consultancy Framfab Rob Ballantine. “Things like screen reader software add to the cost of a PC, so disabled users might not update their technology as often as web designers assume,” he said. “Ideally, you need to develop for the lowest common denominator technology.”
All functions should be accessible via the keyboard, he explained, because people with movement control or dexterity problems can find it difficult to get a mouse to click on a small button.
Many of these issues make website access difficult for the able-bodied too – a point made by the DRC in its study report. It got blind and sighted users to visit some high and low-accessibility sites. With both groups it took around 50% longer to complete tasks on the low-accessibility sites.
“It follows that all users, not just disabled people, would benefit greatly from the measures required to make sites accessible and useable by blind people,” the DRC said.
The site owners would also benefit, according to Jakob Nielsen of specialist US consultancy Nielsen Borman Group. His research says web development projects should spend 10% of their budget on usability. In return, that will more than double the usability and treble the use of target features, which should convert into sales.
The usability budget should include getting disabled people to test any new website. Automated methods are available but these are far from enough, as the DRC study discovered: “As many as 45% of the problems would not have been detected without user testing,” the report said.
This issue is highlighted by the survey finding that 68% of large companies – but only 29% of small and medium-sized organisations – said they took accessibility into account. The DRC said these figures, taken with the 81% site failure rate, suggest intentions are not turned into best practice. It also points to a low response to its questionnaire on this issue, suggesting a low level of interest among businesses.
When quizzed by the DRC, companies homed in on one or more of five issues: perceived cost, lack of knowledge about what to do, demands for graphics or technical goodies, aesthetic and creative considerations, and lack of awareness of the issues.
This is also recognised by Ballantine. “I often come across champions of accessibility in big organisations who are fighting an uphill battle to convince bosses it makes business sense.
There’s a shortage of expertise; accessibility is a complex issue.”
Whatever the issues, companies cannot afford to wait, said Christopherson. “Inaccessible sites exclude a hugely valuable potential market of 1.6 million vision-impaired users, 1.5 million with cognitive difficulties, 3.4 million with disabilities preventing them from using the standard PC set-up easily, and millions with literacy difficulties – not to mention increasing numbers of elderly users.
“Companies ignore this significant market at their peril.”