Accessibility Interview | June 11, 2006

I was recently interviewed for an article on accessibility in this month’s .Net magazine. Here is what I had to say:

1: Why are so many sites still inaccessible?

There is still a large amount of ambivalence regarding web accessibility, from both developers and clients. Many clients are either unaware that the disability discrimination act covers them, or simply don’t care. However, it is not really the clients fault. It is the responsibility of the web development profession to educate clients about their legal responsibilities and build accessibility into their projects, whether specified or not. Unfortunately, due to the increased commoditization of web design, budgets continue to fall and accessibility is often one of the first areas to be affected.

If I employed a professional architect, I would expect them to design a house that complied with current legislation and industry best practices. I wouldn’t be expected to learn all this information up front, to make sure they did a good job. That’s why you hire professionals. If my budget wasn’t sufficient, I could go to a local cowboy, but I’d end up with a poorly executed job that didn’t comply with the necessary standards. In this situation, I would reduce the scope of the house or wait until I had a bigger budget. Unfortunately, many web design clients choose to go the route of the cowboy builder, often–I may add–through no fault of their own.

2: How far has web accessibility come and how far has it to go?

I think web accessibility has come a long way in the last few years, largely thanks to the work of activists like Joe Clark, organizations like the RNIB and legislation such as the DDA and section 508. However there is still a long way to go, and web developers need to make sure that accessibility becomes part of their development process rather than an optional extra.

As well as focusing on developers and clients, lets not forget that the manufactures of assistive devices also have a huge role to play here. Traditionally the major screenreader companies have had surprisingly little involvement in the web accessibility community, and this needs to change.

3: How does PAS 78 help create good accessible sites and is it easy/effective to apply?

PAS 78 provides a set of practical guidelines for clients to follow when commissioning accessible web design services. Unfortunately, end clients need to be made aware of these guidelines, and initially this will only happen in organizations where accessibility is already a concern. The vast majority of developers and clients won’t have heard of these guidelines, or be willing to pay for access to them.

4: Do you still need to look at other guidelines seperately?

There is some misunderstanding about the nature of these guidelines. PAS 78 is intended to act as a guide for people commissioning accessible web design and development services. Agencies themselves still need to be aware of WCAG1.0 and the forthcoming WCAG2.0, as well as other international guidelines. It is also important to remember that web accessibility isn’t just about a series of checkpoints; it’s about real people with real accessibility issues. As well as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, authors need to be aware of usability issues and should test their site with a wide variety of users. This is something PAS 78 takes great pains to point out.

5: How do you deal with difficult clients who are adamant that they don’t really care about a really accessible site as long as it looks good?

Web accessibility isn’t an optional extra so shouldn’t be treated as such. Rather than asking if clients want their site to be accessible, professional web developers should simply build more accessible websites. That way you never need to get into these kind of tricky client negotiations.

Going back to the architect analogy, I doubt you’d ever see a professional architect suggesting wheelchair access as an optional extra when it was actually a legal requirement. Moreover, if the client said to drop the wheelchair access because they wanted to save a bit of money, I doubt any professional architect would agree, preferring to lose the project rather than compromise their professional integrity.

6: What is the process of creating/testing a site for accessibility?

We build all of our sites using web standards, which helps greatly when it comes to web accessibility. We also understand the various accessibility guidelines and keep abreast of the latest recommendations and best practices. However, none of this is a substitute for real user testing and this is something we encourage as much as possible.

7: What’s a designer’s biggest accessibility headache (and why)?

I believe that it’s entirely possible to create beautifully rich designs that are also highly accessible with the minimum of extra effort. However, from a purely visual design point of view, motion graphics probably form the hardest challenge. From a broader development point of view, I think the biggest headache is poor documentation and inconsistent support by the various screenreaders. Ajax is extremely big at the moment, yet few people know exactly how the screenreaders interact with the browser and handle updated page content. This problem is going to get increasingly more severe unless certain screenreader manufacturers start to participate in the web accessibility community.

Posted at June 11, 2006 10:21 PM

Comments

Nathan Smith said on June 11, 2006 10:45 PM

Great interview. One thing I would add is that a web developer should never, ever charge extra for an accessible website. This leads the client to think it is an extraneous feature which is icing on the cake, rather than integral and important. I like what you said about just making sites that are accessible, and not making a big deal about it. Right on.

Spurn Whale said on June 12, 2006 12:40 AM

Textile says you shouldn’t charge extra. What about when the client wants you to develop and manage a second “accessible site” that duplicates and syncs with the first site? I’ve seen that happen with local councils.

Nathan Smith said on June 12, 2006 1:17 AM

Spurn: I’m assuming you’re referring to my comment, though my name isn’t “Textile.” I think the point Andy was trying to make, and one I agree with, is that when a site is done well, there shouldn’t be a reason to maintain two different sites.

Howie said on June 12, 2006 6:56 AM

Good answers Andy. (And glad you managed to get the interview!).

Reading your answers, makes me wonder if PAS78 is in fact really going to change anything. Personally, I think it’s going to take one major court case before anything really changes.

Howie

Mart said on June 12, 2006 9:18 AM

A well considered set of answers Andy. Thanks for publishing.

In reference to Howie’s comment though, I personally doubt there will ever be a court case involving accessibity as the adverse publicity for the website owner would be detrimental in comparison to paying to comply with the law. I’ve found that even retrofitting accessibility to an existing site can be done easily enough and would not require a big budget [dependent on the sites build of course]

Nate K said on June 12, 2006 2:00 PM

Excellent interview!

The tough part, as stated above, is that when there is no legal action (or ANY action) that could be brought against a designer/developer for not creating accessible websites - then they will continue in their ways.

Too many think its too hard to build that way, and at the same time refuse to learn. Also, there are many ‘web designers’ out there who come from the print world and dont understand all of the ins/outs of web design (which is a WHOLE package: design, usability, accesibility, etc).

Your example of the architect is perfect!

Peace,
Nate

Robin said on June 12, 2006 5:21 PM

Unfortunately as developers I believe we’re legally bound by the DDA as well:

http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1995/Ukpga_19950050_en_8.htm#mdiv57

Robin said on June 12, 2006 5:22 PM

Oops, I did of course mean ‘Fortunately’ :)

Ara Pehlivanian said on June 12, 2006 5:56 PM

Not to be a pain (alright, I’m being a pain) but is there a reason you chose not to use an ordered list to enumerate the interview questions?

Andy Budd said on June 12, 2006 8:49 PM

No.

Steve Woods said on June 16, 2006 9:53 PM

Andy, I believe we have disagreed slightly in previous postings, but I still have a lot of respect for you and this type of article is exactly why.

I’m in HUGE agreement about not making accessibility (or even valid, semantic code) an optional extra - it is the way sites should be built by default! I’ve lost track of the amount of times my boss has asked “so, how many more days should we charge out for the accessibility stuff”.

Excellent article - however, the real OMG!! is .NET magazine concentrating on something outside of Dreamweaver!

;)

Jared Smith said on June 20, 2006 9:44 PM

I was in the London Gatwick airport returning home from @media when I took a quick glance in a store and saw this beautiful “WEB ACCESSIBILITY” headline on a magazine on a shelf end. I stood there and read the article and even took a photo as proof to the folks at home here in the U.S. that accessibility was not only a topic in a UK magazine, but the feature story. I just now found your blog. It’s fantastic that the topic is getting such attention. Great job in presenting the facts. And a big AMEN to what you said about screen reader developers needing to get involved!