fourquarters Guide to Web Accessibility

fourquarters Guide

Introduction

Ten percent of the European population are disabled in one way or another. The e-Europe Action Plans and the UK Government's E-Envoy and eGIF (e-Government Interoperability Framework) are all committed to making public websites accessible. The entire public sector across Europe is affected by this mandatory commitment. The international standards upon which web accessibility is based are set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Central Government requires that all Local Authority and Fire Authority Websites are accessible as defined by the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative.

The Standards

The World Wide Web Consortium, (W3C) at http://www.w3.org - an international, vendor-neutral consortium that promotes the evolution & interoperability of the Web - undertook the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) during 1998-9 and produced, among other guidelines for the makers of browsers and web-authoring software, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG), for web authors, and in 2008 released WCAG 2.0, the long-awaited update. These guidelines are frequently referred to simply as The Guidelines.

Implications

The main thrusts of Web Accessibility include, on the one hand, to separate structure and presentation, and on the other, to facilitate the rendering of the page in non-visual browsers.

Seperation between structure and content requires seperation between Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), so that HTML is used for structuring a web page and CSS for visual formatting (colour, font, etc). Each HTML page calls in a CSS file to control the way it is presented. There is often just one CSS file for an entire website.

This separation of structure and presentation allows end-users of websites - those visiting your webpages - to substitute document-css (the stylesheet the HTML page is coded to call in) for their own user-css, (an alternative CSS file on their own hard-drive,) enabling them to see your web pages presented in the way they require. For example - many dyslexic users need to see white text on a blue background to be able to read it comfortably.

Facilitating non-visual browsing requires the inclusion of a range of HTML elements and attributes specifically introduced into HTML for use by speech browsers. Navigation, forms, tables and the structure of text content are all directly affected by new techniques for web-authoring that make accessing a webpage with a speech browser or screen reader both possible and easy. In addition, there are HTML tricks and techniques to facilitate the use of a web page by those using input devices other than a standard mouse - including, of course, those accessing a page with mobile internet devices.

How Can I Tell If A Website is Accessible Or Not?

A website that carries a W3C logo is not necessarily an accessible one. There is no certification authority, and unscrupulous web developers with little or no understanding of web accessibility can put the logo on their site, if they choose to - and even try to sell you a web accessibility audit!

There are some basic, straightforward clues. In your browser, choose View->Source to look at the code behind the page. Scroll down below the <head> of the page to the <body> and see if there are <table> and <tr> and <td> tags everywhere. Look for <font> tags too. If you can see them, the page is probably not accessible: it uses tables for layout. An accessible page will have <div> tags, and many of the tags will have <class> attributes: it uses CSS for layout.

If you are feeling adventurous, you could copy the url of the site you want to check, and paste it into the "Check by URL" field at http://validator.w3.org/. A website that validates against a Strict Document Type is much more likely to be accessible than one that fails even to validate against a Transitional Document Type. The Transitional Document Type is the type of code that allowed web developers to continue using old, inaccessible HTML code between 1999 and 2001, when the the Transition came to an end with the publication of XHTML 1.1, which had no Transitional Document Type. HTML5 has no Transitional Doctype either.