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Tuesday 20 March 2007

Better Connected, 'Accessibility' and all that

My fellow blogger Jack Pickard, who does a job not a million-miles dissimilar to mine, has commented on the controversy raging amongst UK eGov, focussing on accessibility.

It started with the annual SOCITM report on local government websites: Bettter Connected [parodied, right, by Public Sector Forums].

This report includes a section about accessibility, which uses a number of methods, including the universal standard devised by an organisation called WCAG , as well as the RNIB and Usability Exchange, to come up with a score — and herein lies the controversy.

The website Public Sector Forums reports very directly, exclaiming Why Better Connected 07 is garbage.

Another colleague Dan Champion weighs in with a more measured tone.

And now Jack:

Let’s stop saying that WCAG is a measure of accessibility. It isn’t. WCAG shows you things you can do that will likely make your site more accessible. But throw some real people at your site and it either will or it won’t be accessible to them, irrespective of what your WCAG conformance level says.

Remember: WCAG Conformance is not the same as accessibility.

Real people. Real tests. Real progress?

This is the point. Who does it gain to dance around with one wrong line of code on one page out of several thousand? (Which is actually to a large extent what's at the back of this - one wrong line of code).

Move on: Getting input about the content from disabled people is something you can do whilst you fix that pesky code.

Because if people with disabilities are just gaining access to a whole lot of confusing councilese, what are they gaining? Frustration?
  • Are you duplicating info that others provide?
  • Are you directing people to the right sources (online + off)?
  • Are the resources allocated in the budgets to get this right?
  • Is your content of any practical use?
I agree with Jack. To me accessibility goes way beyond WCAG.

It would be a great help for eGov and disabled people if we focussed on usability, for one. Which we don't really do.

We do this where I work in a more formal way but, as well. here's a couple of things I've done:
  1. Sent things to disabled staff. In particular I have one blind staff member who I copy in occasionally. She looks at stuff and can tell me there and then whether it works or not. That simple fact has proven enough to get people to jump and move. Even without the blind person right in front of them. [accessify forum is another good place from practical guidance].
  2. Shown people the web from a disabled person's perspective. Done this twice with dyslexia (an-ex member of our team) and screen readers - that generally blows people away.
I tend to sit accessibility in, amongst others, a usability framework. This doesn't just make practical sense, as above, Jakob Nielsen has been writing about the subject for some time.

In 'Beyond Accessibility: Treating Users with Disabilities as People' he argued that:

It's time we moved beyond technical accessibility when discussing how to improve the Web for users with disabilities. We should consider these users as users: As people who have jobs to perform and goals to accomplish when they use websites and intranets. Once we've achieved technical accessibility, our new goal must be task support and increased usability of websites and intranets for people with disabilities.

Sure, users with disabilities are disabled, and many must use assistive technologies to access the Web. Obviously, websites must be accessible through alternative user interface devices, such as screen readers and screen magnifiers. If you can't get at the information or services that a website or intranet offers, then you definitely can't use it either. But, just because a design is theoretically accessible, doesn't mean that it's easy to use, simple to learn, or supports efficient job performance.

> article continues <

Nailed it, Jakob. In 2001.

Getting usability right means getting accessibility right.

Accessibility in eGov also sits within a wider context: where's the budget for content, for example? Where's the centrally produced, easily repurposable content? Is there policy?

We can buy feedback from differently disabled people but where's the simple methods and practical advice for real user input?

But the focus is so much on the technical - driven by both Whitehall, geek fascinations and commercial interests and exacerbated by living in our own, web bubble - that these sorts of, practical, questions are drowned out and non-technical people excluded

Here's a postscript from Bruce Tognazzini, talking to business:

Designing for the Differently-abled

Guess what? Designs for the disabled don't have to hurt usability for the normally-abled. In fact, if you are doing your job properly, your designs will help everyone.

Lots of myths surround the whole disabled issue. First, you can give up thinking of yourself as permanently-abled. Most of us will end up with increasing disability, starting at age 40 when our eyes begin to go. If we live long enough, we can plan on a whole bunch of other systems to go, too.

We also tend to become temporarily disabled, and I'm not only talking about breaking your leg skiing. How about if you are trying to wheel a heavy suitcase down the street from where the cab abandoned you? Do you think that curb cut might turn out to be a good thing? When you get to the hotel, that silly ramp is going to look pretty good, too.

It is the same thing in software. Make an application usable by the blind and you have also given everyone else access to a powerful keyboard interface, particularly useful when struggling with an inferior pointing device on that cute little portable. (Nothing like a laptop or palmtop to make you temporarily disabled.)

Designs for the disabled can be screwed up. Apple created a special mode for the visually impaired in the early days of the Macintosh that would blow up a portion of the screen really big. It should have been useful for all users, but they had implemented it in such a way that you couldn't easily show and hide the expanded window. As a result, half your screen disappeared long-term. That was a reasonable price to pay for the visually-impaired. It was too high a price for the rest of us.

What to do

When you design for the disabled, do as Good Grips did:

• Design and usability-test extensively for the disabled.

• Also test across a broad spectrum of users as well, and keep a constant eye out for how your work can improve the lot of all users.

• Ensure that elements of your product do not actually impede its usability for the rest of us.

By the way, if you know the guy who is responsible for that toilet in the handicap stall with the seat four feet off the ground, how about passing this column on? I'd like to be able to leave my step ladder at home.


  1. Hi Paul,

    Yes very much agree with your general take on accessibility...

    One small point: in your article you appear to suggest that the contribution of the Usability Exchange to Better Connected 2007 is somehow part of the controversy. If anything the contribution of the Usability Exchange to Better Connected 2007 has been completely (conveniently?) ignored in the debate that has been raging so far.

    Since launching in March 2006 the Usability Exchange has actively promoted the concept of cross-disability user testing (ie. not just visual impairments) within Socitm with the result that Better Connected 2007 is the first Better Connected report to include the results of cross-disability user testing (see section 5.5, also Appendix 5). Last year Socitm also commissioned the Usability Exchange to carry out disabled user testing of Socitm's Top 20 local authority websites after Better Connected 2006 had been published.

    My impression from working with Socitm is that they are very aware of the limitations of technical accessibility guidelines and are keen to follow the guidance of PAS 78 which stresses the need for disabled user testing when assessing accessibility (for example see Better Connected 2007, section 2.6).


    Stefan Haselwimmer
    Managing Director
    Usability Exchange