There are more than two million blind or partially sighted people in the UK, and nine million people with hearing problems. One in four households have a disabled family member. Why then don’t UK companies make their websites more accessible to these groups?
Some would argue that the idea of websites for the blind is just another example of political correctness gone mad. After all, the internet is, in essence, a visual medium and the last thing designers think about when building corporate websites is how accessible they are for someone who can’t see. But here’s a word of warning: the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 states that websites offering any form of service are to be treated as an extension of business premises and, as such, must be fully accessible to disabled users. In effect, a company’s website must be as accessible as the front door to its office and companies that ignore this are liable for prosecution.
OK, so no one in the UK has successfully brought action against a website over access … yet. And, as there is no UK case law to fall back on, court action is made more complicated. But in Australia, a blind man called Bruce Maguire successfully took the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games to court in 2001 because he could not use its website with his sighted children.
The accessibility issue for many websites lies in how blind people use the internet. In order to read pages, people with sight problems can use special software called a screen reader that literally speaks the content of web pages to them. This is fine if websites are mostly text based, but as sites become more reliant on graphics to communicate information this leaves blind people disadvantaged.
So what do UK companies have to do? The law is typically fuzzy on the issue. According to the Disability Discrimination Act, companies must make “reasonable adjustments to change practices”. The Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) helps demystify the issue. Its website, www.rnib.org.uk, provides lots of best practice guidance that companies can use to retrofit their existing websites, providing case studies such as Waitrose and BT, both of which have taken website accessibility seriously.
Some sites automatically assess accessibility, such as http://bobby.watchfire.com, which checks websites by simply typing in its URL. Interestingly, the RNIB’s own homepage fails the most stringent Bobby test. For deaf people, the RNID is working on a project called eSIGN, which would provide virtual signers for video and audio content over the internet.
Deri Jones, founder of SciVisum, says that although it is difficult for companies to cover all the accessibility issues, some basic steps can be taken, such as formulating an accessibility policy or following some of the best practice guidance published by organisations such as the RNIB.
“Initially, it is not going to be easy because companies have a lot of catching up to do,” says Jones. “There is a knowledge gap at the moment, but everyone will be working accessibility into websites in a couple of years.”
In these days where great emphasis is been placed on executive pay, non-executive directors, auditors and financial accountability, the corporate social responsibility debate is being neglected, and along with it issues like accessibility. Now is the time to make simple changes to things like websites that will help redress the balance.
And if the ethical argument doesn’t wash with your business, perhaps the threat of prosecution might. Bruce Maguire was only awarded A$20,000 in damages by the Australian courts, but the damage done to any company’s reputation by similar action would be much more costly. Don’t ignore the issue and be the first UK company to be taken to court. UK companies should be setting new standards in corporate governance, not legal precedent.