A few years ago the technical press was full of articles on website accessibility, but now the topic hardly rates a mention. So can we all now relax from fear of legal prosecution over technicalities that most people never understood in the first place?

Let’s start with a few basic facts and a bit of history. There are over 6.9 million disabled people of working age in the UK (19 per cent of the working population). There are also 5 million pensioners who are registered disabled. Overall, 2 million Britons are visually impaired.

With such large numbers of people disabled, perhaps it was not surprising that, back in the 1990s, there was so much emphasis on the need to make websites “accessible”. The most pressing problem at the time was that visually impaired users often relied on screen readers.

A screen reader is a piece of software that works as a web browser, retrieving pages from a website and then reading the text to the user. This worked well in the days when the internet was a text-based tool used by academics, but as soon as the rest of us got hold of the worldwide web, we started designing fancy websites. And in those days the Swiss-army-knife of web design was the humble table. For example, if we wanted to have navigation appear in a vertical column on the left of the page with text on the right we had to create a table with two columns. If the column of text on the right also needed to include a photograph, we’d probably put that in a table as well so we could control how the text flowed around the image.

Before long every page was full of tables. And the more beautiful we tried to make the page, the more tables were needed. Previously, tables were only used for tabular data, but suddenly websites all over the internet were using them to achieve particular tabular layouts – often requiring tables nested within tables ”¦ many levels deep.

What’s the problem I hear you ask? The problem is simply that screen readers find it very difficult to make sense of pages with so many table structures. Should the text be read left to right (one row at a time) or top to bottom (in columns). And what to do about nested tables?

It was a mess. Many of the visually impaired had enjoyed the early years of the text-based internet but felt increasing ignored (then discriminated against) when websites became more “visually interesting”.

Modern websites keep content and layout separate

Using tables to achieve fancy layouts for a website was never a good idea. To the rescue came a new technology called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) which allowed content to be kept separate from layout. About a decade later now all sites are built this way.

When you click on a hyperlink, your browser first gets given the text content and is then told where to find other resources (eg images). It is also given a separate file (the stylesheet) containing instructions on how it should all be displayed.

With content now kept separate from layout the screen readers can once again do a decent job.

Modern browsers can zoom to make pages bigger

Obviously not all of the 2 million visually impaired people are using screen readers; in fact most people just need things to be a bit bigger. This used to be a major challenge for website designers but now all modern browsers offer built-in zoom controls. These don’t just enlarge the text (which has been possible for some years now), they enlarge the entire webpage thereby keeping text and images in proportion.

All “modern” browsers support this feature: Mozilla, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer 8 (but unfortunately not Internet Explorer versions 6 or 7).

If you are using one of these modern browsers on a PC just hit Ctrl+ and Ctrl- to zoom (or Cmd+ and Cmd- on a Mac).

Other methods (in praise of the BBC)

The BBC picked up the “accessibility” challenge many years ago and they are now generally considered as setting the gold standard of best practice in the field by providing detailed standards for site developers. In addition, they provide a remarkable accessibility section called “My Web My Way” for end users at www.bbc.co.uk/accessibility.

It is so good that many web developers now include only a short statement about accessibility on their sites and link users through to the BBC site for more information. One site to do this is the Scottish Parliament site at www.scottish.parliament.uk (take the accessibility option from the top of the screen).

In brief, the BBC “My Web My Way” site provides advice on how to see, hear and read websites more clearly by making the text larger, magnifying the screen, making the mouse pointer easier to see, changing the colours, changing the font, using your own style sheets and making your computer talk.

Accessibilty – is it all over now?

No, not entirely. There are still issues and not all websites adopt “best practice” to the extent that the BBC recommends. But the risk of a high profile prosecution under the Disability Discrimination Act must surely have receded significantly in recent years.

Modern websites are now intrinsically more accessible, and what problems remain I would expect to be resolved through normal complaint procedures rather than high profile prosecutions.

For reference

Andrew Gray is co-founder and Client Services Director of Conscious Solutions, a major web design agency providing website design, digital marketing, CRM and intranets to over 220 law firms.

Email agray@conscious.co.uk.

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