British businesses have been served notice on their legal responsibility (Disability Discrimination Act 1995) to improve the accessibility and usability of their websites in order to avoid the threat of legal action.
As a result of the recent report in April 2004 from the Disability Rights Commission, it is clear that a high profile test case is likely in the not too distant future. The DRC assessed 1000 websites from all sectors, from e-commerce, government information, to search engines and portals, and concluded that more than 80% failed to meet even the minimum accessibility requirements (A).
Massie, Chairman of the DRC says
"We want to work with the industry. We've shown the problems, our research is robust, and the conclusions are clear. We're using the force of argument. If that fails we won't hesitate to use the argument of force."
Accessibility is defined by the web industry standards body, theW3C organisation as follows:
Web accessibility means access to the Web by everyone, regardless of disability.
A fully accessible site is one that is designed to make use of the latest web technologies such as multimedia, while at the same time accommodating the needs of those who have difficulty with or are unable to use these technologies. - RNIB
Web accessibility is important because:
The legal requirement
If you provide a service to the public, you have duties to disabled people. The Act makes it unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a disabled person by refusing to provide any service which it provides to members of the public. The duties relating to the Act have been introduced in three stages, with further legislation expected in October 2004. However, it is important to realise that the law relating to accessible websites came into force on 1st October 1999. The supporting Code of Practice for this section of the Act was published on 27th May 2002. Up to 80% of websites are currently breaking the law.
The moral imperative
The internet presents an opportunity for all people, regardless of disability, to access a wide range of benefits deriving from new technology. It provides hugely improved access to information, knowledge and services direct from the desktop, which can empower those whose access may have been limited by mobility or other disablity. The internet is an enabling technology wich helps to level the playing field for those previously at a disadvantage. The huge benefits of an accessible web are thus clear, it's a challenge that all e-businesses should take up for the benefit of both business and the wider society as a whole.
"With the fierce competition the internet offers, usability
and the online customer experience will, for many users, become an important
differentiating factor. So it makes good commercial sense to have an accessible
website. I am convinced this means a win for users and a win for companies
Ian Lumsden, Chief Executive of Standard Life.
1. Increased market
Research tells us that 1 in 4 people in the UK have some form of disability, that's a potential market of about 18 million people. There are 2 million blind and partially sited people in the UK. (RNIB) In the near future the elderly population of Britain will climb to comprise up to 40% of the entire inhabitants of the country. This audience with their lack of mobility have become keen users of the web and internet communications in general. This audience has significant spending power and influence. The disabled community in the UK alone is estimated to have a combined spending power of £33 billion.
2. Increased exposure through search engines
Websites that are accessible can benefit from better visibility on search engines due to their accessible use of technology. Search engines use automatic "spidering robot" technology to review websites and include them in their listings. These robots are technologically equivalent to the text readers used by disabled people and can be blocked by overly complex technology or poor usability design. Accessibility used as a guide to website design and technical architecture improves search engine visibility and thus exposes your products to a far wider audience.
3. Improved usability
A huge part of the requirement for good accessibility is improving usability. Websites that are effective in delivering information and services to the disabled community are demonstrably easier to use than those which are not. Improved clarity of design and usability provide real benefits to all users not just those with disabilities and have been demonstrated to improve customer retention, raise sales conversion rates and thus ROI.