Letter to the MS Society on Accessibility

Web Accessibility is a human rights issue rather than a technological problem. And history shows us that human rights issues are never resolved until the people who are losing out become vocal in demanding their rights. In the USA, disability lobbying groups have pursued AOL, Southwest Airlines and most recently, Target.

But in the UK, nothing much has happened. It could be that most websites here are perfectly acceptable. Ahem. More likely, it could be the case that going to the law is stressful, complicated and expensive. I doubt I’d want to initiate a court case, and I’m pretty able-bodied and solvent.

It could be that people with disabilities may not know their rights to the Web.

So when there was an article in the magazine for the MS Society about using a computer accessibly, I wrote the following letter which was published in the May/ June edition.

Sir,

As a Web developer and person with MS, I was interested to read your article on computers (A whole new world). A computer can be a great way to communicate and interact, particularly with people far away or if you have difficulty getting out of the house.

Most computer systems are easy to use for people with disabilities, as the manufacturers have put a lot of thought into making them accessible: you can use the keyboard if your motor control isn’t up to using a mouse, change the text size, magnify the screen, or even have a synthesised voice read the screen to you if you’re visually impaired. But it’s sadly a different picture with the World Wide Web.

Although the Web’s governing body, the W3C, published detailed guidance on how Web developers can make Web sites accessible as long ago as 1999, a recent survey by the Disability Rights Commission showed that 81% of UK sites lock out disabled users. Many supermarkets, banks, and utility companies thumb their noses at the disabled customers who would gain a lot by being able to pay bills etc from home.

I urge anyone who finds a website that they can’t use – maybe because you can’t resize the font, or access the information through the keyboard alone – to report the problem to the owner of the site. Look for “contact us” or “about us”, or send an email them. If there’s no obvious email address, send it to webmaster@ followed by the name of the site without the www prefix. (So, if it’s www.example.co.uk, send an email to webmaster@example.co.uk.). Only by making our voices heard can we stop being ignored.

Please also let the Disability Rights Commission know: you can do this on the Web at http://www.drc-gb.org/about_us/helpline/helpline_enquiry/enquiry_form.aspx or via their helpline 08457 622 633. Perhaps you could tell me too, as I’m part of a volunteer group called the Web Standards Project that educates other web developers, and this can show them how sloppy work affects us so badly.

Enough’s enough – it’s time the Web were truly world-wide, and included us too.

Happy surfing!

Bruce Lawson

(Between writing it and publication, two things happened. The editors bowdlerised one of my paragraphs:

Most shamefully of all, many government sites follow this trend. This is particularly disgraceful, as some of those sites are the only place to find up-to-date information or apply for benefits and the like. Worse still, they use our money to build their discriminatory web sites.

I wonder why? Also, the DRC redesigned their site, breaking the hyperlink that I’ve silently corrected above. (Note to DRC: your business is protecting people with disabilities – so why do you not have a ginormous button on your homepage marked “Complain”? Why make people hunt through the navigation structure for the complaints form?)

If just a fraction of people with MS are encouraged to email offending site owners, it could educate a few businesses and web developers.

And if any stories actually do get back to me, I’ll write them up here, stating the problem and suggested technical solution – and hopefully show that Accessibility really is a real-world problem about people, their rights and how technology can empower rather than discriminate.

3 Responses to “ Letter to the MS Society on Accessibility ”

Comment by Dan

That\’s a fine letter Bruce, even the \”revised\” version. Blair recently suggested something similar, a \”Seen an inaccessible website? Complain to the DRC\” link on accessibility-aware websites. It\’s the web equivalent of those big \”How\’s my driving? Call 800-road-kill\” stickers on the backs of lorries – except of course that the site owners themselves are never going to opt-in, so it\’s down to the pressure-groups and individuals like yourself to signpost the way to complain.

Comment by col

Hi,
I forwarded an email to enquiry@drc-gb.org (Disability Rights Commision) from ATOC re descrimination and got a thank you email back with the message that the above email was no longer in use and to use the online form? That meant they havn,t got the email I forwarded to illustrate the discrimination.I tried sending it to the webmaster but it came straight back.