Seventy Percent of Websites Are Breaking the Law on Accessibility - Here's How and Why That Needs to Change

It's difficult to imagine living in the modern world without the internet, but that's a reality a lot of visually impaired and disabled people have to live with. Not because they don't have internet access, but because the internet isn't accessible to them.

We've all been there, angrily tapping at your phone on a website that just refuses to co-operate. The links are too small to click, the images won't load and the ads are both incredibly invasive and impossible to close. Now imagine accessibility issues like this every time you visit a website, infuriating right?

The 2010 Equality Act was introduced to update and add clarity to the Disability Discrimination Act (1995). Society changed a lot in 15 years, the act was intended to ensure disability legislation remained up to date, and nowhere was this more relevant than the internet.

In 1995 the internet was a fad amongst students and tech geeks, by 2010 it was the primary source of information in the world. The place we did our shopping, booked travel, found maps, communicated with friends, conducted business and more. It's difficult to imagine living in the modern world without the internet, but that's a reality a lot of visually impaired and disabled people have to live with. Not because they don't have internet access, but because the internet isn't accessible to them.

A study in 2005 found 97% of government websites in Europe did not provide a minimum level of accessibility, and even though that's eons ago in internet time, things haven't got much better (although all sites are now committed to improving accessibility and it was recently made law that all EU public sites must be accessible). The Business Disability Forum has been checking the accessibility of websites since 2008 and in that time 70% of the sites reviewed were given a 'red' assessment - defined as 'significant potential commercial, PR or legal risk' - because of their lack of accessibility.

According to the Equality Act (2010), Section 29(1):

"A person ... concerned with the provision of a service to the public or a section of the public (for payment or not) must not discriminate against a person requiring the service by not providing the person with the service."

Therefore not providing a service to a disabled person that is normally provided to other persons is unlawful discrimination. This applies as much online as it does in the physical world, and as much to commercial web services as it does to public sites, so having an inaccessible site is actually breaking the law. In this article I hope to convey just how important it is to be accessible online and introduce a few things you can do to check that your website is accessible.

Just to be clear, I'm not going to teach you how to code an accessible website from scratch; I design holidays, not websites, and that would make for an exceedingly long article. However what I do know about is running a business for disabled and visually impaired people and how important accessibility is, both for your disabled customers and your profits.

"My profits?" I hear you ask. If you were umming-and-arghing about this before I bet that perked your attention, and now I'm going to grab it. There are 12 million disabled people in the UK. That's 12 million potential customers with a spending power of £120 billion that you're missing out on. Just look at this testimony from the Sight and Sound Technology, a company that creates technology solutions for people with a sensory or age related disability, blog:

"If I find a site I can use then I use it as much as possible; often even if I know I might be able to get things cheaper elsewhere. For example, I find it easier to have my supermarket shopping delivered and the best site I found to use is Ocado, so I use it. I know some things would be cheaper elsewhere but, well, the accessibility of the site and the app make it so easy why would I bother to look elsewhere when my experience tells me I'm likely to find problems."

Furthermore, accessible sites are more usable by everyone, not just disabled people, and because they're well-designed they're cheaper to run and maintain. It's a win-win situation.

"Okay, okay, you win! It's the law and it's good business! Tell me what to do." I will, just let me take a sip out of my nice tall glass of I told you so.

The first thing to do is to consider how visually impaired people use the internet, which is primarily through screen readers. These devices go through the entire page and read it in the exact order in which the words appear in the HTML, which might not be the same as the visual order. That means if a visually impaired person clicks on a link to a blog post they may have to listen to the screen reader go through all the navigation and website sections before they get to what they wanted to read in the first place. Therefore you should put 'skip to main content' options in the HTML or put the main content first in the HTML. You can also divide the page into sections with clear headings that can be skipped to.

The next thing is to remember how you use the internet and how dependent on visual cues you are. So much of our online experience is natural and visual because we learned how the internet works without having proper lessons, we just clicked pictures until they did something. This means using new websites and apps is normally intuitive and easy, but it also means there aren't necessarily the right considerations in place for visually impaired people. For example even if a website doesn't have a 'home screen' button you know that if you click on the big logo you will likely get back to the main page because that's how the internet and it's visual cues work. However if this isn't described properly in the HTML a visually impaired person with a screen reader or braille device may not get the information required. You also need to describe any images using alt-text, otherwise a screen reader will just skip it or say something like 'image'. Not only will giving your images alt-text make your site more accessible, it will also help with your SEO, so again, everyone wins from accessibility!

It's also important to consider how adverts are coded into your website, as some screen readers will read the advert right in the middle of the text, which can be very distracting. You could be reading something very serious and have it suddenly interrupted by something completely random, like "David Cameron gave an announcement today. Herbal viagra changed my life!" It might make you giggle the first time, but it can become very annoying very quickly.

Finally, it's worth remembering that not everyone with a visual impairment will use a screen reader. Some may be colourblind or just not have full vision, however this can still make some websites inaccessible. Make sure your website isn't too dependent on colour (e.g. links that change colour when you hover over them) and use contrasting colours for text and background. It's also good to make sure the text on your site isn't too small, and maybe even give the option to change the size of your text.

This is by no means everything you can do, but it should give you a few things ask your web designer about and the basic knowledge to check your website. If you really want to learn more check out this great guide, and why don't you get a trial of a screen reader to see just what it's like to use the internet without vision.

The internet is such an important tool for visually impaired and blind people. It allows access to information and experiences that may be far more difficult to access in the physical world, where, despite progress, certain barriers, for the foreseeable future at least, will always remain. The internet isn't like that. We're still building it and can shape it and craft it with accessibility in mind so nobody is excluded. New technologies have already provided numerous fantastic advancements for visually impaired people. Image recognition software, 3D Printed images, voice command smartphones; all these things and more are improving accessibility and new ground is being broken all the time. However we mustn't forget the basic things we can do to make sure all web pages are accessible. We have an amazing opportunity to build a more accessible world, we have to make the most of it.


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