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February 2006 - The Importance of Website Accessibility

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 22, 2006 10:25 am    Post subject: February 2006 - The Importance of Website Accessibility Reply with quote

It may surprise you to know that when you look at a website, it often appears completely different to other people. Invariably this is not because their eyesight is bad, but could simply be because they are using a different browser.

So, what is a browser? Put simply, a browser is a the programme that you use to look at websites. This could be Internet Explorer (as most people use), or Firefox, or Netscape, or Safari, or Opera, or many others. To further compound this confusion, each of these different 'brands' of browser have different versions, which also may display a website differently. The result is that a website made to look good in one browser (which is usually Internet Explorer version 6) may look terrible, even illegible, on people using an older or different version.

Therefore, what can be done to ensure that your website looks just how you want it on all browsers? The answer is fortunately rather simple. All websites are made up of code, which is called HTML, and CSS. There is an organisation, set up by the Briton who invented the Internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, called the W3C, or World Wide Web Consortium. Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the Internet originally as a research tool, but then saw it as a way to bring information to the entire population of the world. However, in order to do this there had to be standardisation of this HTML and CSS code. Unfortunately, the American corporations got hold of this great British invention, and decided to go against the wishes of Mr Berners-Lee (as he was then called) and make money out of it. Battles between Microsoft, Apple and others meant that the great philanthropic experiment of Mr Berners-Lee appeared dead, as rival companies made browsers that displayed this code in different ways, thus leading to websites appearing different on different computers.

However, Berners-Lee decided to set up the W3C and create a standard for the code, and slowly, owing to his tireless efforts, the different browsers have been reacting to the standard code, and have been making their browsers to display websites in similar ways.

Yet, in order to complete the work of the W3C, websites must be coded VERY carefully and VERY strictly. Those sites that have been coded correctly are eligable to display the W3C logo, which can be found on all ParishCouncil.net websites.

The Law
So successful in his campaign was Sir Tim Berners-Lee that correct coding of websites has indirectly become law in the UK. This is because correctly coded websites are more likely to be classified as ACCESSIBLE websites. In fact, the world recognised classification for Accessibility, the Web Content Accessibility Criteria, is actually a classification devised by the W3C.

The reason that this is law in the UK is because of the impact of the Disability Discrimination Act, of which many Parish Councillors and Clerks will be fully aware. This means that you must not offer a service which cannot be accessed by disabled people. Well, with a properly coded and accessible website, even blind people can access a website, using a special tool called a screen reader, which literally reads out the text that appears on the screen. Again, all ParishCouncil.net websites can do this.

To date, a number of Government Authorities have actually been sued because of the fact that their website is not accessible. Whilst this has not happened yet to a Parish Council, they must be very careful in the websites that they offer. It is not difficult to provide a fully accessible website, but you do need to know what you are doing. This is the reason why the Local Government Association recommends that you investigate fully the type of website that you commission for your Council, and ensure that it meets with the requisite legal requirements.
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