Web sites are getting harder to use, says Gerald Haigh. Yet they could be accessible
How do you see the internet working for your school? Is it a liberator, providing unlimited access to information for your pupils and a powerful home-school link for parents and teachers? Or is it yet another party to which a significant minority aren't invited?
Your attitude probably depends on whether you have a disability that makes it difficult to use the internet. The list of those likely to find themselves partially cut off is longer than you might think. It includes, as well as people with impaired vision, anyone who can't use a mouse, or is dyslexic, or deaf, or has problems seeing colours.
The familiar needs of your pupils and staff are only part of the story here. There are supply staff and visiting teachers to think about, too, and, beyond that, it's becoming increasingly common for parents to visit school websites for information; or even to pay for dinners and school trips with credit cards.
A good start
Ironically, when the internet arrived, things were relatively straightforward. With the technology then in place, it was easy to make pages work with access systems, such as synthetic speech. The infant worldwide web was much in line with the vision of Tim Berners-Lee, its inventor, who said: "The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability, should be an essential aspect."
One user of screen-reader technology, quoted on the RNIB (Royal National Institute of the Blind) website, says: "For me, being online is everything.
It's my hi-fi, my source of income, my supermarket, my telephone. It's my way in."
But new technologies have made it possible to create web pages of ever increasing complexity that leave some users behind. Robin Christopherson, web consultancy manager at accessibility charity AbilityNet, says:
"Designers were captivated by the technology and started providing flashy interactive stuff without appreciating the ramifications of their work."
He points in particular to e-learning sites, which should be capable of opening doors for people with disabilities, but which, in some cases, do precisely the opposite: presenting their information in a bewildering mix of animation, sound, splashes of colour and difficult-to-follow interactivity.
"Often you'll find that the website looks OK at first," Christopherson says. "But then when you hit the actual course it's a complete show-stopper. People who want, for example, to impose their own colours or font sizes find it's all locked."
By 2004, concern reached the point where the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) conducted a survey of 1,000 websites. It included testing by disabled users, and compared the sites with the guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (see WAI website, below) - and it found that 81 per cent of sites failed to meet the most basic accessibility criteria.
The clear need is for websites that readily deliver all their content to people with visual impairment, andor need to use input devices other than the standard keyboard and mouse.
That it's possible to design such sites that also look attractive to the mainstream user is demonstrated by the sites that you would expect to be meticulously compliant - for example, the Disability Rights Commission and Web Accessibility Initiative sites. These bear out the commission's research, which shows that sites that are accessible to users with disabilities look neat and professional, and turn out to be 35 per cent easier to use for everyone else, too.
The realisation that this is so is one factor that's helping to promote the message about accessibility. On top of that, there's the law - websites are within the remit of the Disability Discrimination Act.
Anyone in education will presumably want to do more than just keep out of trouble, and will try to provide as good a service as possible to all potential users. The best plan here is to start with some of the sources of advice that are either with us already or about to appear. These include:
* The three levels of guidance provided by the Website Accessibility Initiative. This starts from priority one (the basic minimum), and progresses through priority two (things you ought to do if you can), to priority three, which lists further points that will help some users.
* A new website assessment standard, called "See it Right with UseAbility".
It combines into one seal of approval existing audits from the Royal National Institute of the Blind and AbilityNet. Websites that meet the criteria carry a logo.
* A Publicly Available Specification (rather like a British Standard) entitled "Guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites" from the DRC and the British Standards Institution. This will be available in the spring.
* Guidance from the Adult Dyslexia Organisation, which is campaigning to have websites set up so users can hear the text read to them. Chief executive Donald Schloss says: "Read-back software should be directly accessible - not downloaded - and in plain English."
The Website Accessibility Initiative site hosts guidelines and support materials for creating accessible websites.
The Disability Rights Commission details the forthcoming Publicly Available Specification on website accessibility and provides background on what's expected.
AbilityNet's site explains the wide range of assistive technology and support it offers. It also has website accessibility advice and details of the AbilityNetRNIB UseAbility logo.
The Royal National Institute of the Blind's site has a detailed web accessibility section at www.rnib.org.ukxpediogroupspublicdocumentscodepublic_rnib008789.hcsp
A partnership between AbilityNet and the BBC, this is an excellent source of advice and help to all: for example, who wouldn't benefit from the tips on making their web browser easier to use? Anyone running school ICT will learn something useful here.
Offers accessibility advice and support, and campaigns for accessibility.