Joomla! Accessibility

By Joshue O Connor
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About this book

Understanding how to create accessible websites is an essential skill these days . You may even be obliged by law to create websites that are usable by the widest audience, including people with a range of disabilities.

This book looks at what accessibility is and the various reasons, such as legislative or legal, as to why you really need to understand accessibility and then create websites that can be used by everyone.

This book therefore examines the diverse range of user requirements that need to be considered for humans to successfully use web technologies.

If you have no experience of being around, or working with, people with disabilities then it can be very difficult to successfully design user interfaces that cover their needs. This book will show you how you can both understand some of the various needs of people with disabilities and the technology they use to interact with computers and the Web.

Publication date:
October 2007
Publisher
Packt
Pages
156
ISBN
9781847194084

 

Chapter 1. Why be Accessible?

To get started, we will first look at what accessibility is. We will look at the benefits of accessibility, as well as some of the drivers behind the scenes, such as legislations around the world.

You may already have an appreciation (and I hope that you do) that making your websites and interfaces accessible is the right thing to do. No one wants to be discriminatory, block users out of their sites, or frustrate them with bad design and poor code. Most websites that are guilty of this are probably not even aware of it. However, even though many of the websites around the world are still inaccessible—this is slowly changing. I hope that this introduction, and the following chapters, will help you become a little more informed of what it is that we are trying to do here and why.

Defining Accessibility

There are several definitions of accessibility. The International Standards Organization (ISO) defines accessibility as:

"The usability of a product, service, environment or facility by people with the widest range of capabilities (ISO TC 16071)."

If we apply this definition to the Web it refers to the design interfaces and applications that can be used by the widest possible audience; ensuring that there are no users who are left out when trying to use them. That's great, however, note that it doesn't specifically mention blind users or other people with disabilities at all, yet it talks about usability.

The W3C in its "Introduction to Web Accessibility", defines it as:

"Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web. More specifically, Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web. Web accessibility also benefits others, including older people with changing abilities due to aging."

You can read further at: http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/accessibility.php

So some definitions specifically talk about people with disabilities and others don't. While I believe that access for everyone is a great ideal, I also think that the details are important, and I support the definition that specifically mentions people with disabilities. According to me the first definition, talks about universality, which is great, but I think that web accessibility is a specific part of that universal umbrella that mostly relates to people with disabilities. As you read further you will realize that people with disabilities have specific needs; and in order to meet these needs, you as an author or developer, need some solid techniques and understanding, so that they can use your website easily. This is where I hope this book will be useful.

Understanding Your Users

Whatever definition you prefer, the upshot is that it is important to understand your audience and their different needs. How can you do that? I have been very fortunate as I got some experience as a graphic designer/developer and IT trainer in the private sector before I got to work directly with people with disabilities and assistive technology (AT). So I experienced some really positive effects that simple technologies and good designs can have on people with disabilities.

I am currently working with blind and visually impaired people, but what informs my definition and experience of accessibility, as well as my understanding of the diversity of user requirements, does not stop there. Many people think that web accessibility is mostly about serving the needs of visually impaired users. However, this is not true. The truth is that by serving the needs of the blind and visually impaired users, you will actually improve the accessibility and usability of your website or software for everyone. Again, this can be seen as a happy by-product of good practice and development habits on your part.

Dealing with Change

In many ways accessibility encompasses our ability to deal with change and to cope with diversity. There are changes, such as failing sight and other physical and mental changes that we go through as we get older. Therefore our abilities to perform certain tasks and the equipment we need to do the every day tasks may also change. I may need glasses to read or at least play my music much louder (though that may be why I am going deaf!). Whatever it is we will invariably find that our own abilities change with time.

Understanding accessibility involves stretching our abilities to deal with these changes and user diversity. The success of your efforts, to quite a large degree, depends on how well you can accommodate diverse user requirements in your web projects.

Think Different

Apart from being a well known advertising slogan for some computer manufacturer, the above heading is also a good piece of advice and is helpful in understanding accessibility. Often, there are barriers for users in places that you may never dream of. You will also find that many solutions result from doing things the right way and not cutting corners in your work. The following are some examples, and while they are not all Web related, I hope they will get you thinking about how you could get around some accessibility issues from both the Web and the built environment.

These examples are from the NCBI CFIT website (www.cfit.ie):

  1. 1. A bank cash machine presents information and choices using a video screen only, so the blind customers cannot use it.

  2. 2. A home alarm system indicates if it is set correctly using sounds only, but an elderly person who finds it difficult to hear cannot tell the sounds apart.

  3. 3. A website specifies a small fixed size for text, so a user with low vision cannot use the built-in browser controls to increase it to a size they can read.

  4. 4. The input slot on a ticket machine is out of reach for a person sitting in a wheelchair, so they cannot use it.

  5. 5. The buttons on a remote control are too close together and fiddly to operate for an older person with arthritis.

  6. 6. A web page has too much content and is confusingly laid out, so it takes too long for many people to find the information they want on it.

In short you often have to think outside the box, look at problems from different angles, and analyze the situation, to come up with a workable solution.

 

Defining Accessibility


There are several definitions of accessibility. The International Standards Organization (ISO) defines accessibility as:

"The usability of a product, service, environment or facility by people with the widest range of capabilities (ISO TC 16071)."

If we apply this definition to the Web it refers to the design interfaces and applications that can be used by the widest possible audience; ensuring that there are no users who are left out when trying to use them. That's great, however, note that it doesn't specifically mention blind users or other people with disabilities at all, yet it talks about usability.

The W3C in its "Introduction to Web Accessibility", defines it as:

"Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web. More specifically, Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web. Web accessibility also benefits others, including older people with changing abilities due to aging."

You can read further at: http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/accessibility.php

So some definitions specifically talk about people with disabilities and others don't. While I believe that access for everyone is a great ideal, I also think that the details are important, and I support the definition that specifically mentions people with disabilities. According to me the first definition, talks about universality, which is great, but I think that web accessibility is a specific part of that universal umbrella that mostly relates to people with disabilities. As you read further you will realize that people with disabilities have specific needs; and in order to meet these needs, you as an author or developer, need some solid techniques and understanding, so that they can use your website easily. This is where I hope this book will be useful.

Understanding Your Users

Whatever definition you prefer, the upshot is that it is important to understand your audience and their different needs. How can you do that? I have been very fortunate as I got some experience as a graphic designer/developer and IT trainer in the private sector before I got to work directly with people with disabilities and assistive technology (AT). So I experienced some really positive effects that simple technologies and good designs can have on people with disabilities.

I am currently working with blind and visually impaired people, but what informs my definition and experience of accessibility, as well as my understanding of the diversity of user requirements, does not stop there. Many people think that web accessibility is mostly about serving the needs of visually impaired users. However, this is not true. The truth is that by serving the needs of the blind and visually impaired users, you will actually improve the accessibility and usability of your website or software for everyone. Again, this can be seen as a happy by-product of good practice and development habits on your part.

Dealing with Change

In many ways accessibility encompasses our ability to deal with change and to cope with diversity. There are changes, such as failing sight and other physical and mental changes that we go through as we get older. Therefore our abilities to perform certain tasks and the equipment we need to do the every day tasks may also change. I may need glasses to read or at least play my music much louder (though that may be why I am going deaf!). Whatever it is we will invariably find that our own abilities change with time.

Understanding accessibility involves stretching our abilities to deal with these changes and user diversity. The success of your efforts, to quite a large degree, depends on how well you can accommodate diverse user requirements in your web projects.

Think Different

Apart from being a well known advertising slogan for some computer manufacturer, the above heading is also a good piece of advice and is helpful in understanding accessibility. Often, there are barriers for users in places that you may never dream of. You will also find that many solutions result from doing things the right way and not cutting corners in your work. The following are some examples, and while they are not all Web related, I hope they will get you thinking about how you could get around some accessibility issues from both the Web and the built environment.

These examples are from the NCBI CFIT website (www.cfit.ie):

  1. 1. A bank cash machine presents information and choices using a video screen only, so the blind customers cannot use it.

  2. 2. A home alarm system indicates if it is set correctly using sounds only, but an elderly person who finds it difficult to hear cannot tell the sounds apart.

  3. 3. A website specifies a small fixed size for text, so a user with low vision cannot use the built-in browser controls to increase it to a size they can read.

  4. 4. The input slot on a ticket machine is out of reach for a person sitting in a wheelchair, so they cannot use it.

  5. 5. The buttons on a remote control are too close together and fiddly to operate for an older person with arthritis.

  6. 6. A web page has too much content and is confusingly laid out, so it takes too long for many people to find the information they want on it.

In short you often have to think outside the box, look at problems from different angles, and analyze the situation, to come up with a workable solution.

 

What Are the Benefits of Accessibility?


There are some substantial benefits of accessible web design and development:

  • It makes good business sense: Who would want to limit the amount of their product or service that they can sell? Not many, or if that is the case then they will not be in business for long. Building accessible websites can actually increase the amount of business you do by ensuring that no one is excluded from your website. So effectively you allow anyone who is interested to enter, treat them well, and ensure that their stay is a pleasant one.

  • Enhanced SEO (Search Engine Optimization): SEO can seem to be a black art (and for some it literally is). If you are a little unsure of what to do to get your business-website ranking improved don't fear—make your site accessible and it's ranking will certainly improve. This is because search engines (including Google) can be thought of as blind users. If you structure your content well and make it accessible—then search engines will be able to search your content more quickly, find appropriate keywords, and serve your pages with a higher ranking for relevant keyword searches.

Note

Search engines like Google often change their secret algorithm, and many try to anticipate these changes, and hack their HTML accordingly. This is a waste of time.

You will be much better off creating a nice accessible site rather than performing keyword stuffing, abusing alt tags, and other bad, black hat SEO practices.

  • Better design: Graphic designers unfortunately, often design for themselves. This is not always the case, but is often true. As a result the Web is littered with sites that use tiny text that can't be resized, illegible fonts, and bad color contrast. This often renders the site content unreadable to many—though in the designer's head it looks great.

So by considering the diverse needs of users, for example, people with vision impairment who need good color contrast and resizable text, the designers should change their styles to accommodate these user's needs. A good design principle is that "form should follow function". This is a simple, but effective mantra. Unfortunately, it is often completely ignored.

Note

Accessibility brings some important design issues back into sharp focus and designers must rethink how they are going present content, their layout techniques and so on.

How you design can have both a powerful positive and negative impact, so don't just follow fashion, think about your users.

"Accessibility is not anti-design". Many of your cool graphic designer friends might believe this. They are laboring under a misconception. Accessibility actually forces them to think about the details and motivation behind what they design, forcing them to not vainly follow trends, or use their design skills only to express themselves.

Tell them if they wish to express themselves they should join a punk band, otherwise they should think about what they are doing and ensure that lazy or shallow fashionable design styles do not dictate how they work.

If you have an awkward client who refuses to see reason when it comes to good design, firstly take a deep breath, and try explaining the reasons for your design decisions. This means with careful use of logic and good reasoning you can usually beat any fuzzy ideas your client has about their perception of what constitutes a good design.

 

Accessibility Legislation


You might have to ensure that your website is accessible under certain laws. This however depends on which part of the world you are in, the site's purpose, and several other factors.

We will now look in detail at the current state of legislation in the Ireland, after that we will look at the EU, US, and UK. You can visit the link from the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) site that deals with global legislation, if you do not belong to any of these areas.

Much of the following section on Irish legislation comes from the NCBI CFIT website thanks to its author, my colleague, Mark Magennis.

Irish Legislation

There have been significant positive moves in legislation and public policy relating to IT accessibility in Ireland.

The accessibility of online services is mainly covered by "The Disability Act (2005)" and it contains an explicit requirement for public sector bodies. Section 28 states:

"Where a public body communicates in electronic form with one or more persons, the head of the body shall ensure that as far as practicable, the contents of the communication are accessible to persons with a visual impairment to whom adaptive technology is available."

This is a good step towards meeting the needs of visually impaired people. Though it doesn't explicitly cover the needs of other people with different kinds of disabilities, there have been significant advances made in Ireland recently.

The National Disability Authority (NDA) has also produced a Code of Practice on Accessibility of Public Services, which explains the public sector obligation to provide accessible services. The Code has legal gravitas as it states that public websites should be reviewed to ensure they achieve Double-A conformance rating with WCAG 1.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. We will discuss WCAG in greater detail later in the book.

Accessible Procurement

The NDA also produced a Public Procurement Toolkit, which can be used to provide advice, guidance, and information for those looking for accessible services.

Several other acts have been passed in Ireland, which when viewed as a legislative suite, reflect some positive change. There is "The Equal Status Act (2000)", which requires all service providers to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities by making reasonable changes in what they do and how they do it—without these changes, it would be very difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to obtain these goods or services.

Although not specifically mentioned, this could in theory cover ICT-based services. This follows from the application of similar general disability legislation in Australia and the USA.

However, the Act requires only accommodations that cost a nominal amount. This rules out any but the most trivial efforts. There has never been a test case of this requirement.

The "Employment Equality Act (1998)" covers the provision of accessible technologies to employees. However, like the Equal Status Act, only accommodations that cost a nominal amount are required. There has never been a test case of this requirement.

 

Laws and Public Policies in Other Countries


Many countries have a legislation that can be applied to all kinds of ICT accessibility including the Web. This usually comes in one of two forms:

  • Specific legislation covering public sector services delivered through ICT.

  • General disability legislation covering equality of treatment, but not specific to ICT.

The first form (e.g. the U.S. Section 508) usually states specifically that the services delivered through ICT systems must be accessible to people with disabilities. However, this type of legislation usually applies only to the public bodies.

The second form (e.g. the UK Disability Discrimination Act) does not usually mention ICT systems, so it is up to the courts to decide on a case-by-case basis whether it covers things like websites. However, it usually applies to private organizations as well as public bodies.

UK Legislation

Much effective UK legislation is covered by the following three acts:

  • Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA)

  • Disability Rights Commission Act 1999

  • Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, which amended the DDA to provide an obligation in an educational context ('the SENDA').

While the UK guidelines tend to not mention IT explicitly, the code of practice implies the importance of accessible websites. For example, in section 5 of 'Auxiliary Aids and Services' there is as an example of a service and its website that is subject to the DDA.

"An airline company provides a flight reservation and booking service to the public on its website. This is a provision of a service and is subject to the Act."

The DDA was introduced to end the discrimination of people with disabilities by providing access to goods and services, employment rights, and rights when buying or renting property. The "Special Educational Needs and Disability Act of 2001" was passed, which meant that universities had to ensure that their educational services were accessible to disabled learners, as a condition of their grant, as this was not covered in the original DDA (1995).

The US and Section 508/504

The US has taken a rights-based approach. They have also designed their system so that if you do business (or hope to do business) with the federal government, your website and other ancillary services must be accessible. It is a fantastic approach that got the attention of the business community, and has already done a huge amount to raise awareness about accessibility.

Thanks to Jared Smith of WebAIM, where I got much of the following.

The "Rehabilitation Act", which was passed in 1973, secured equal rights for people with disabilities. It was amended to include two sections 504 and 508 that relate to web accessibility.

Section 504 is a civil rights law. It states:

"No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States... shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

The language of this legislation is straightforward and unambiguous, and anyone who receives funds from the government may not discriminate against people with disabilities—for example, by having inaccessible web services. This includes schools, government agencies, and universities.

Section 508—as we know it today—refers to an amendment to the Reauthorized Rehabilitation Act of 1998 and it bars the Federal government from procuring inaccessible electronic and information technology (E&IT) goods and services—this includes the Internet.

There are several bodies set up to help guide the standards. They include the Access Board and the EITAAC (Electronic and Information Technology Access and Advisory Committee).

So What's the Big Deal with 508?

Section 508 may be limited only to the federal government, but it had an enormous effect in the private sector.

Section 508 provided the first-ever US federal accessibility standard for the Internet. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines existed prior to this; however, these guidelines created by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) were not intended to be written as standards. Also, these guidelines came from a voluntary international body with no regulatory power.

This section provides compliance language that could be monitored at a distance. Section 508 outlines binding enforceable standards, which must be adhered to, in order for the E&IT products to be accessible to persons with disabilities. It introduced a statutory language.

State governments may be held accountable for complying with Section 508. All states receive funding under the Assistive Technology Act of 1998. To gain access to this funding, each state must assure the federal government they will implement

all conditions of Section 508 within their state entities (including higher education). Many states have codified Section 508 to be state law (e.g., Arizona, Nebraska, and Wisconsin), which requires state institutions to comply with these requirements.

Businesses must comply with Section 508 when supplying Electronic and Information Technology goods and services to the federal government. The influence of web accessibility on business and industry is more significant when the demands of a client, or potential client, like the US federal government, must be met.

All the above points comprise a very big deal and a huge positive step towards inclusive design and accessibility being a standard default setting in providing services to the public.

If someone believes that they have encountered a breach of Section 508 or that they are being discriminated against they may file a private lawsuit in federal district court, or a formal complaint through the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act has technical standards for all of the following:

  • Software Applications and Operating Systems

  • Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Systems

  • Telecommunication products

  • Video and Multimedia products

  • Self contained, closed products

  • Desktop and portable computers

The European Union (EU) and e-Accessibility

Different countries within the EU have their own policies to service people with disabilities, rights, etc. We saw the Irish and UK legislation, followed by the situation in the US, and now we will look at the EU policy.

There are several charters, initiatives, and action plans that are in place that make up where the EU is with regard to people with disabilities and accessibility.

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights has several articles that refer to people with disabilities:

  • Article 21 prohibits discrimination based on grounds of disability, among others.

  • Article 26 provides explicit recognition of the rights of people with disabilities and the need to ensure their independence, social and occupational integration, and participation in the life of the community.

eEurope Action Plan

The eEurope 2002 and 2005 Action Plans aimed to promote Internet usage and broadband penetration throughout the EU. It looks at how our lives can be benefited by the Internet and accessibility for older people and people with disabilities. You can read further at: http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/eeurope/2005/index_en.htm

e-Inclusion Policy

The Lisbon Council in 2000 agreed to make a decisive impact to eradicate poverty and social exclusion by 2010. The Riga Ministerial Declaration on e-Inclusion of June 2006 identified six areas that the European Commission views as covering e-Inclusion of which accessibility is a part.

  • e-Accessibility: Make ICT accessible for all

  • e-Aging: Empower older people and enhance their quality of life.

  • e-Competences: Equip citizens with the knowledge, skills, and lifelong learning approach needed to increase social inclusion, employability. and enrich their lives.

  • Socio-Cultural e-Inclusion: Enable minorities, migrants and marginalised young people to fully integrate into communities and participate in society by using ICT.

  • Geographical e-Inclusion: Increase the social and economic well being of people in rural, remote and economically disadvantaged areas with the help of ICT.

  • Inclusive e-Government: Deliver better, more diverse public services for all using ICT while encouraging increased public participation in democracy.

European Policy and the Future

The EU i2010 program is the next step in furthering the goals of e-Inclusion.

The EU has taken a different approach to the US using 'soft legislation' to standardize accessibility requirements for all public procurement, which is hoped to have an effect in the wider market.

The main areas of concern are:

  • Accessibility requirements in public procurement

  • Certification and assessment

  • Exploration of legal measures

 

So What Does It All Mean to You?


You may be wondering why I have included these rather detailed examples of legislations, standards and policies.

I wish to illustrate that, depending on where in the world you are, how tricky it can be to find clear-cut, unambiguous legislation that clearly states your responsibility under the law. As far as I am concerned, equal access to information and accessible technologies should be a right for everybody and, I really like the US model. However, as I hope that you can now see, in many parts of the world it just isn't so and it is often a struggle to make accessible services a reality in a legislative context.

Note

The US has a rights-based approach where if procurers don't comply, then they don't do business with the federal government, which is one big client to ignore. The EU have adopted a softer 'accessibility as a standard' approach, starting with EU wide procurers (which means public sector agencies) and then taken the view that this will have a trickle down effect for those in the private sector.

Which is the best? It's hard to say. As I mentioned, I like the rights-based approach as I think this got the attention of anyone who wanted to do business with the US government. The EU has taken a different approach.

The US model may engender a 'do the bare minimum' to check all the boxes and declare yourself compliant; this is not an ideal mindset. So only time will tell how effective the EU approach will be. There are many capable people involved in various EU projects who are flying the flag for accessibility and the adoption of best practices and standards.

There is certainly a shift around the world towards public sector and business having to build accessible websites and other ICT services as a matter of course. There have been some high profile court cases, which have brought these accessibility issues into the public consciousness and no doubt there will be more, but even this has not shocked or scared business into a great rush towards making their websites and applications accessible.

 

Summary


In this chapter we saw some definitions of accessibility and the concepts of usability and universality. We will examine these ideas in greater detail in the next chapter.

We explored the need to understand your users, accommodate diversity, and deal with change. We saw the benefits of accessibility and examined some legislations from around the world.

Although legislation is certainly an effective stick to drive business to create accessible services, some may be of the opinion of paying the fine and ignore users with disabilities, as they are only a small part of the market. If you work for a government department or other public sector agency, bear in mind that your clients are ordinary citizens who have the same right to access information and services as everyone else. The technology to make this a reality already exists!

About the Author

  • Joshue O Connor

    Joshue O Connor is Senior Accessibility Consultant with CFIT (Centre For Inclusive Technology).

    CFIT is a part of the NCBI (National Council For The Blind of Ireland) and is a not-for-profit organization that provides expert advice and services to public and private sector organizations. These services include user testing, accessibility auditing and consultancy.

    Joshue has a creative background in Graphic Design, which lead to Web Development and New Media Training. After several years in the shark infested waters of the private sector, through IT training, he got to work teaching people with a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities.

    This was an invaluable hands-on experience that brought him into contact with a diverse range of Assistive Technology users, who found technology a positive and enabling force in their lives. A natural gravitation towards Web Accessibility thus blossomed.

    Joshue is skilled in the design and development of accessible websites and has a deep understanding of the diversity of user requirements. He is a member of the Guild of Accessible Web Designers (GAWDS), the Web Standards Project ILG (WaSP ILG), the Irish Design For All E-Accessibility Network (Irl-Dean), the IIA User Experience Working Group (UEWG), EUAIN, and the HTML 5 Working Group. This is his first book, contributions to obscure academic papers notwithstanding.

    In his spare time he hangs out with his plants, studies computer science, plays Irish traditional music badly, and runs a small record label TechRecord.




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