Why Web Accessibility Efforts Fail

Posted on Oct 24, 2009

According to a recent report published by Federal Computer Week, the accessibility of federal government websites continues to be an area of need. While problems with the newly redesigned Recovery.gov site were expediently addressed, there remains a number of sites that fail to comply with Section 508 standards.

It may seem surprising to learn of any government website that doesn’t meet Web accessibility guidelines, considering that such standards are created by the same body that produces and endorses their implementation. According to accessibility expert Jim Thatcher, however, such sites as WhiteHouse.gov and MakingHomeAffordable.gov reported problems meeting even baseline requirements. When we speak of “standards,” we’re referring to such features as textual equivalency for images and videos, as well as the ability for screen reading software to interpret non-visual content for users with vision impairments.

Part of the problem might be the sheer number of sites whose URL’s contain the .gov suffix. As reported in the article linked above, gathering and analyzing current data would be helpful in evaluating the degree of effort required to sustain compliance. The effort required to do this, however, remains somewhat unclear:

“While I believe that there has been significant progress in federal Web site accessibility, we still often hear of problems with federal Web sites,” Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium, said. “It would be helpful to have updated and accurate data on the extent of current issues.”

Another area to explore might be in the technological messages delivered to Web designers and developers. According to a review of the An Event Apart (AEA) conference in Chicago recently held last week, there are opportunities to globally disambiguate the connection between XHTML “standards based” designs and its role in providing barrier-free content. Andy Clarke’s comment at the bottom of the post made a very good point:

I too find there’s a misconception that standards-based web design = accessible website, and unfortunately for many designers (encouraged by an almost obsessive desire to get green ticks & no warning/error messages in the validators), assume that once their site validates to the standards, they must also have done the job with accessibility too. Places like An Event Apart are the right stage to get the message across that good accessibility (’real world’ accessibility) goes beyond using web standards and getting sites to validate.

Let me be clear that a Web standards-based approach with compliant XHTML and CSS is always a beneficial tactic towards delivering accessible websites. However, accessibility can be compromised when designers get crazy with div tags and complex float positioning. Although not optimal, it is possible to design accessible web pages using HTML tables. The thought that tableless design automatically makes a Web page accessible, while not entirely false, does create a sort of blanket assumption that the needs of disabled users have been satisfied.

It is also important to remember that mere technical compliance does not automatically result in user-centric accessibility. It’s remarkable when a site whose code validates as technically Section 508 compliant renders poorly during user testing. Section 508 is a broad guideline, one whose compliance does not guarantee that a site will be easily interpreted by a blind user relying on a screen reader. The order and context of content should remain top priority when using assistive technologies to render Web pages.

Finally, there needs to be increased education on behalf of a user base that comprises ten percent of the world’s population. With the average life expectancy increasing past seventy years of age, this ratio is likely to increase over time. As Web technologies become more ubiquitous with the way we live, we must continue to strive towards the creation of digital experiences that allow users equal access to transactional, social, educational and employment opportunity.