Designing in the disabled

In 1990, when the hyper-text system that was to become known as the World Wide Web was invented, web content was reasonably easy to use whether you were fully able-bodied, short or long sighted, had a more profound disability such as blindness or couldn’t use your hand to manipulate the computer mouse.
It had always been the intention of the web’s founder, Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, that the web should be accessible to everyone “regardless of disability”. However, over the years since the first web browser was pioneered web content has gradually become less and less accessible to disabled people.  
Many disabled people had been successfully using the Internet and personal computing for years before the web was invented, thanks to technology known as ‘screen readers’ that voice the content of the screen aloud so it is read by sound rather than sight. Screen readers and the early web made happy bedfellows and blind people in particular began to get a taste of a world where information that had previously been difficult, if not impossible, to access appeared to be becoming available at the touch of a keyboard.

Declining accessibility

During the 1990s, as interest in the web as a commercial medium rose, the accessibility of web content began to decline. In their rush to enable the faster creation of content that would enable the dawn of e-commerce, standards, quite literally, slipped.
The technology that disabled people rely upon to read web content relies in turn on standards-conformant web content and standards-conformant web browsers, both of which began to disappear from the web during the late 1990s. Cheap point-and-click web design tools meant that anyone could be a web designer, and the forgiving nature of the later browsers meant little skill was required to create content that looked good on screen.
In the rush to bring content creation capabilities to the desktop the vital importance of standards as the great enabler for inclusion was lost. Disabled people who had begun to use the web logged on to find that many of the early sites they’d enjoyed using had been hurriedly re-designed with the latest bells and whistles, but with scant attention to accessibility, usability or standards. Many government sites turn their backs on accessibility and even the BBC forwent inclusion in favour of conforming to the wants of the latest (non-standards-conformant) browsers.
Did the government mean to design disabled people out of the frame? Probably not.
Government web designers probably thought the web browsers would evolve to include disabled people in their next release. A note from history: they didn’t, and they rarely do. In my experience, I’ve heard many technology developers ‘promise’ to make version 2.0 of their software accessible to disabled people. It never happens because accessibility is almost always made a lower priority than other features as the software developers focus on making money at the expense of the ‘common good.’
Accessibility is about the common good. As we get older, the incidence of mild to moderate impairments, such as sight loss, hearing loss, cognitive problems (such as memory loss) and lost of manual dexterity (e.g. as a result of arthritis) become more and more likely. A warning for the future: those who design disabled people out of technology today are designing themselves out of the technologies of tomorrow.

Remedial work

Remedial work began in 1999, but it continues to be an uphill struggle. It was in this year that the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative released Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG) in an attempt to encourage web developers to write standards-conformant code.
This is one part of a three-part set of guidelines that also includes the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) for developers of any web authoring tool, from web design software to content management systems, from PDF creation software to social media such as Facebook and MySpace; and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) browsers, media players, access technology used by disabled people.
Although the WAI guidelines have been adopted as the de facto standard for accessible web design the world over, conformance to them has been at best patchy, with a survey published as recently as 2004 indicating that only 19 per cent of UK websites meet even the most basic level of conformance.
The UK government has made several attempts to encourage the development of more accessible websites. Since 1999 and in successive editions, the Cabinet Office’s (now the Central Office of Information) Guide to Government Websites has included clear and consistent guidance on how to create accessible code. However, with no government department taking responsibility for mandating conformance to the guidelines disabled people have continued to experience lower levels of access than taxpayers might reasonably expect.  

Local government websites
The annual Socitm Better Connected report makes a point of assessing the accessibility of local government websites, but with the exception of a few beacons of good practice (Hampshire County Council and London Borough of Lambeth are good examples) the majority of local councils are still failing to deliver a reasonable standard of accessibility to the very citizens who make heaviest use of local government services: disabled people.
As part of its 2004 research, the Disability Rights Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) found that a high proportion of the web designers and website commissioners it surveyed were aware of the importance of accessible web design and expressed a keenness to implement accessible design practice. However, the research found that in over 80 per cent of cases government departments, councils and the private sector are failing to design for disabled people at all. The lesson here is clear: exclude disabled people from your design at your peril, as designing them back in again is a tricky business, even when you mean to do it.
Even the law, in the shape of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, seems powerless to improve the situation (arguably, having had exactly zero cases in the UK county court to date hasn’t helped).

A new approach

Clearly, a new approach is required. Innovation does not wait for disabled people. As a nation we are heading for a time when our older population will far outnumber our youth, when there will be a requirement for our older people to remain economically active and independent for longer than they have in the past.
Technology surely is the great enabler, but in our haste to innovate we have put commercial interest first and people last. Are we now doomed or is there something we can do to reverse this dangerous trend and put technology back in the hands of the many as the ‘Modernising Government’ white paper published by the Cabinet Office in 1999 encouraged us to do with its targets and promises that everyone who wanted access to web content should have it?
In 2009, the BSI British Standards will publish a new British Standard on web accessibility, building upon its 2006 publicly available specification ‘Guide to Good Practice in Commissioning Accessible Websites’ (PAS 78).
BS 8878 (the title has yet to be confirmed) will tackle the issue from a commercial perspective. It will suggest a practical process for ensuring that the private and public sectors successfully produce digital design that is inclusive of as many of the user population as possible. While disabled people are intended to be the key beneficiaries of the new approach, people whose first language is not English and everyone who reads web content over a mobile device stand to benefit from the user centred approach that encourages the development of ‘accessible user experiences.’

The new standard
The new standard will point to WCAG/ATAG/UAAG and the guidance of software developers such as Microsoft, Adobe, Apple and IBM. But the standard itself will not be a technical document. Rather, it is intended for senior managers, senior marketers and anyone who has the authority to sign off budget for web projects. The standard will have a commercial bent with the aim of empowering web developers by persuading those who sign off web budgets to see the importance of accessibility and the potential for healthy return in ensuring sufficient monies are directed towards the development of accessible user experiences.  
A committee of web accessibility experts is drafting BS 8878. Prior to publication, BS 8878 will be released as a Draft for Public Comment. This is expected to happen at the start of 2009, and the BSI Web Accessibility Committee hopes that web developers and those who have a professional interest in the success of their organisation’s website will scrutinise the draft and contribute to its development.
It is hoped that by making web accessibility the subject of a British Standard it will be regarded as one of the essential building blocks on which any public website (or intranet) is build. Ideally, accessibility should be regarded with the same gravitas as security and privacy.
The time for sitting back and waiting for technology developers to include disabled people in future iterations of their technologies is over. History shows that it simply doesn’t happen. Not through lack of goodwill towards disabled people, but simply because technology moves so quickly.
By building in accessibility at the very foundations of every web project from this point forth disabled people have a fighting chance of prospering in the digital age. Tim Berner-Lee’s vision of ubiquitous web access for everyone has suffered enough set backs. We hope that BS 8878 will help set our web back on its tracks.

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