So I get a gig writing an accessibility report for a big organisation that launched its website last year. They wanted an external opinion, but were completely confident that everything’s fine, as they didn’t use any old supplier; they used the same big company that implemented all their payroll systems, their CRM suite etc. Big guys. Big company. Got to be pros, right?
Can you guess what happened? Of course, the site didn’t even meet WCAG priority one ("A Web content developer must satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it impossible to access information in the document").
Apart from code that wouldn’t validate to any known DOCTYPE (not that it had one, as they’d copied the DOCTYPE declaration from the old W3C site and left the unresolvable relative paths), the accessibility errors included:
- 40+ nav links before content on every page, and no "Skip links" facility
- missing alt text on spacer gifs, or alt text of "*".
- Nested tables, pop-ups, and zillions of PDFs that my client’s staff had uploaded with a CMS that produces URLs of absurd ugliness.
Now, the developers wouldn’t repair it under warranty, as my client had “signed off” acceptance. My client has an exclusive support contract with those same developers – who quoted them £100,000 to correct the mistakes. Ouch! Zoiks! Zowee!
The specifics of this case are not my business, but let’s consider the wider implications. Suppose I buy a brand new car, and the next day the police give me a random exhaust emissions test, and it fails. If I went back to the manufacturers and they said, "Well, Mr Lawson, you didn’t specify that it had to emit less than 38 parts per squillion of Lead Cyanide, so bad luck", I could take them to court and win.
Implicit in my purchase is that I wish to purchase a legal product, and by holding themselves out as as a car manufacturer, they imply that they know the laws pertaining to making cars – and adhere to them.
As I’ve said elsewhere,
A hospital needs to know the latest developments in medicine, not best practice web design. A bank doesn’t want to think about the linearisation of tables; it wants to concentrate on its core business of loaning billions of dollars to lunatic dictators so they can build luxury palaces and repress their population with expensive western-made helicopter gunships.
My clients are decent and enlightened; they certainly wanted an accessible site, and believed that by hiring a reputable company, they were buying the expertise required to procure one.
But it’s no use assuming that those same consultants who implemented the payroll system can make a website. Putting together a package to be used by professionals who go on week-long training courses to learn how to use it is not the same as putting together a site that can be used by anyone in the world with access to a computer and a phoneline. They’re different disciplines.
Just because someone did a great nosejob for your friend, you wouldn’t ask them to do your heart bypass, would you?
We desperately need a court case here in the UK that will finally and definitively establish that Web disability discrimination is as much discrimination as refusing to allow someone in a pub with a wheelchair. We need that precedent to establish that the contractors who make the site are jointly responsible (at least) for knowing the law and ensuring it is kept to.
But that court case doesn’t appear to be imminent, despite the rumours. So if you represent a company about to contract out your website, I suggest you specify this list ("WCAG priority 2+") as your minimum requirements:
- Validation to the chosen DOCTYPE for every page unless there are reasons why it shouldn’t validate.
- CSS for all presentation (and positioning, unless your target audience is the Netscape 4 Appreciation Society).
- a CMS that produces valid code by default.
- A visible skip links mechanism (not everyone with a disability is using a screenreader!)
- Doubtless more that I haven’t thought of. Can you think of any?
Don’t settle for a vague "Yeah, guv, we can make your site DDA-compliant". Ask questions of your supplier; do they mention unprompted any of the points on the list above?
Or go for someone who is a member of the Guild of Accessible Web Designers (disclaimer: since writing this, I’ve become a member of this group).
Even then, as the site owner, you need someone in your organisation who can monitor the suppliers and do meaningful acceptance testing. Push-button validation is at best a guide – personally, I believe that it’s snake-oil.
And then you need to train your staff. A 4 meg PDF of a scanned organisation chart is crap, and it’s your fault if your staff uploaded it. A 92 page PDF with no hyperlinked contents page is shit – and your legally liable shit.
In fact, have a really good think about why you even want PDFs. They’re disliked by the blind people I’ve talked to (whatever Adobe says), they demand the user learn more software, and it’s very hard to make accessible PDFs. If you’re concerned that web pages don’t print as nicely as PDFs, any competent web professional can make you a print stylesheet that will hide all the navigation and make the pages the right sizes for printing – and if they don’t know how to do it, don’t hire them.
And finally (as I discovered to my own embarrassment when a reader yesterday pointed out my own validation errors): a valid page is only valid until the next change. Every change must be checked. It should be part of the workflow of everyone who uploads using the CMS.
And my poor old client? If they don’t pay the £100,000 they’re breaking the law, and their own equal opportunities policies. They’re bending over backwards, but they’re caught by the short and curlies, and they’re over a barrel: a position that is neither comfortable, sustainable or dignified. (Trust me; I’ve been to specialist Bangkok bars.)
Bear in mind that, at the original accessibility court case in Australia, the judge noted,
The provision of an accessible web site for the complainant and other vision impaired persons constitutes a very considerable benefit … This considerable benefit will be available and the consequential detriment for the respondent will be modest. Indeed, had it sought to address the issue earlier it would have been easily consumed in the course of the development of the site – in [manager of the Adaptive Technology Resource Center at the University of Toronto] Ms Treviranus’ view, the additional effort would have less than 1 percent.
That’s the price of not designing with accessibility in mind right from the start.