Web accessibility: things you need to know

Disabled Parking

This article first appeared in the February/March 2014 edition of Government News.

By Dr Scott Hollier

Last year, my colleague and Media Access Australia CEO Alex Varley published an article in Government News about the divide between government departments preparing for the National Transition Strategy (NTS). While some departments have the transition well in hand, others are still trying to work out the best approach to ensure that all government information is available to people with disabilities.

As a legally blind person and co-lecturer for Media Access Australia’s Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility Compliance, I believe the NTS has clearly been an effective catalyst in getting the accessibility conversation going. The discussion by students of the course, the majority of whom have been from government, indicates that great inroads are being made in making information more accessible, and that’s very exciting to see both professionally and personally.

However, I saw a surprising statistic towards the end of last year regarding the progress of web accessibility implementation. According to the report released on the progress of the NTS, only 39 per cent of new websites were reported to conform to WCAG 2.0 at launch, while 25 per cent did not conform and 35 per cent were launched without a conformance assessment. Given that the creation of a new website is a great opportunity to build in accessibility, I found myself wondering why only 39 per cent of websites would meet the required accessibility standard. Why would so many go through the process of building a new website without making it accessible? And finally, why would one in four not even want to know if their website effectively supported people with disabilities?

One thing that has come through clearly in teaching people about web accessibility is that the above statistic is not due to a lack of dedication. There are a number of ICT professionals, led by devoted decision-makers in government, who are working hard to implement the NTS. Yet one of the key messages that I often hear from students is that web accessibility can be a daunting process initially and this is likely to be a factor in slowing momentum. One of the ways that people often approach web accessibility for the first time is to go straight to the source and read it from top to bottom.

The definitive standard in relation to web accessibility is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and approved as an ISO standard (40500). People in management roles often comment that their initial interpretation of WCAG 2.0 goes something like this – they go to the W3C website, skim through the guidelines, realise the document is hundreds of pages long containing complex technical requirements, close their web browser and write it off as too hard.

As Media Access Australia’s W3C representative, I can appreciate and understand this point of view. The guidelines are initially daunting and quite technical in nature, and simply reading the standard to work out what to do can be a challenging and intimidating baptism of fire. While the implementation of the NTS may represent an annoying and unwelcome pressure in the background for some, you can appreciate that the request is fairly mild when you consider the one in five Australians with a permanent disability.

In my travels I’ve rarely come across someone who doesn’t want to help people with disabilities if they can, so what is the alternative to building non-compliant websites or sticking our heads in the sand in case our websites aren’t accessible? I believe the key is to make the whole thing simpler. Now that we have entered the final year to complete the NTS, the team at Media Access Australia and I have put together some points that we have found provide some helpful guidance to people in management roles who are wrestling with web accessibility implementation and how best to direct their staff.

1.  It’s easier to incorporate web accessibility into a new website than bolting it on to an old one. If you are at a point in your web development cycle where you are debating if funds are better spent creating a new website or meeting the NTS by retrofitting web accessibility, it is much easier and affordable to incorporate the WCAG 2.0 standard into the creation of a new website.

2.  The guidelines are not as daunting as you may think While it is true that the WCAG 2.0 standard is a long and technical document, there are only 12 guidelines at its core. The ‘WCAG 2.0 at a glance’ document published by the W3C provides even further simplification, listing them as:

•      Provide text alternatives for non-text content.

•      Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.

•      Create content that can be presented in different ways, including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.

•      Make it easier for users to see and hear content.

•      Make all functionality available from a keyboard.

•      Give users enough time to read and use content.

•      Do not use content that causes seizures.

•      Help users navigate and find content.

•      Make text readable and understandable.

•      Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.

•      Help users avoid and correct mistakes.

•      Maximise compatibility with current and future user tools. If you can direct ICT professionals to keep these 12 key concepts in mind, it will go a long way to supporting the NTS process.

3.   Invest in and up-skill your staff There are many training courses and workshops available by a variety of organisations that can provide great opportunities to train your staff in how to implement WCAG 2.0 for the NTS. The web accessibility course that I co-teach is run in partnership between the University of South Australia and Media Access Australia, and is a good example of an accredited six-week course that can provide ICT professionals with the skills they need to incorporate web accessibility into their work practices.

4.  There are many great resources available to simplify the web accessibility message While WCAG 2.0 is fairly specific in what needs to be done, there are many different ways its implementation can be approached. In recent times many great resources have emerged that can provide excellent support to ICT professionals, helping those working in the web accessibility space to make effective implementation choices. Access iQ, a service of Media Access Australia, hosts a wealth of free accessibility information including a ‘Web Accessibility Wizard’ which can quickly help ICT professionals to find accessibility techniques.  Another evolving resource is the W3C’s own Easy Checks document, which provides some simple techniques to confirm if some parts of WCAG 2.0 have been implemented.

5.  Free automated tools can be helpful If you’re unsure as to how accessible your current website is, there are automated software tools that can be used to help check some parts of WCAG 2.0. While the tools cannot check for everything and their results are not always accurate, they can be helpful in providing a general ‘heads-up’ as to some of the key problems present on a website. Good examples of freely available tools include WAVE, TAW and aChecker.

6.  Consider how web accessibility applies to staff in non-ICT roles Other staff such as document producers, as well as marketing and communications specialists, will also need to incorporate accessibility in their work. Once staff understands the relevance of accessibility to their role, this can streamline the implementation of web accessibility across the organisation.

7.  Provide support through the accessibility statement With nearly every government website having an accessibility statement page, put it to good use by providing clear information as to how you are going with the NTS, what you’ve done to make the website WCAG 2.0 compliant, what the current issues are and most importantly, how people with disabilities can get in touch if they are experiencing problems. The main legal fights over web accessibility around the world have arisen from unwillingness by the website owner to listen to the issues, so ensuring that there is an effective and consistent approach to complaints can allow any issues to be quickly addressed. The momentum is building for web accessibility to be taken seriously, the community expects it, and government has all the tools available now to make it happen.

Dr Scott Hollier is Project Manager (Major Projects) Media Access Australia.

Comment below to have your say on this story.

If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at editorial@governmentnews.com.au.  

Sign up to the Government News newsletter

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required