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16 September 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Disabling innovation
Setting legal standards for making websites 'accessible' to all won't help web designers, or users.

by Martyn Perks

In October 2004, the third part of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 will come into force - stating that the providers of 'goods, facilities and services' must make 'adjustments' for disabled people (1).

Website publishers and designers like myself have been targeted under the act since October 1999. In a recent survey of 1000 websites, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) found that over 80 per cent did not meet basic accessibility standards and so discriminated against the disabled. While the legal definition of what constitutes a 'reasonable adjustment' is vague, organisations like the DRC and the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) have begun to interpret and enforce the Act's requirements (2).

Website pages must be easy to read, and should be controllable or translatable by 'assistive technology'. This includes screen-readers, Braille software and other tools that compensate for users' lack of physical mobility in controlling devices like keyboards and mice.

Some of these changes are practical. But there is a danger that these new regulations will stifle innovation, by forcing everybody to comply with blanket standards of accessibility. All technology - perhaps especially the internet - benefits from free experimentation, with niche groups pursuing projects that may only later become of general relevance.

The ethos of accessible, inclusive design is that products and services are accessible to everyone regardless of their physical or mental ability. The RNIB and the DRC and others insist that a disabled person should experience everything a normally sighted person does. For example, if a site offers a text-alternative version designed specifically for a screen-reader for a partially sighted or blind person, this potentially discriminates, because it's a sub-standard experience compared to the full version with text, graphics and imagery.

Guidelines for website designers to achieve better accessibility include the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The WAI guidelines set three levels of accessibility - once approved, a site can gain an AAA rating - the highest stamp of approval. Another tool is the Bobby site checker. Running a site through Bobby will either return a list of errors for the design team to fix or give the website a 'Bobby Approved' logo (3).

Some of the WAI guidelines meeting accessibility standards are easy to achieve, but others aren't. For example, images need to have alternative descriptions that would allow blind or partially sighted users to read them using assistive technology. Problems occur when translating a visual layout for a partially or non-sighted person. A visual layout contains more than just text - it can contain implied, tacit information, including colour, and the hierarchy and relationships of elements on the page. Although not technically insurmountable, some guidelines are difficult to achieve, and in some cases they involve rethinking original designs.

Website accessibility can be useful - and not just for disabled people. Browsing a website using a mobile phone or a Palm Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) is far easier if there are no images - because the limited bandwidth and smaller display sizes makes downloading difficult, time-consuming and expensive. With alternative text descriptions you can understand most of the missing images' function. As with most design solutions, it turns out that there are often unintended, unexpected benefits that appeal beyond the original target audience.

The RNIB and accessibility consultants argue that accessible design is just as interactive and creative, once you understand how to design within the guidelines. And they argue that improvements in usability for disabled people will improve overall ease-of-use for everyone.

This is indeed partly true now - but perhaps only because presentation standards online have not significantly improved for many years. Technology has not moved beyond simple hypertext displays, even though there is much more that can be done with rich media like video and audio. And even with the onset of broadband in many people's homes, things are unlikely to change for a while yet. With a dearth of good content, the onus is still to produce simple hypertext based-designs - accessible content is a plus, but it also highlights a lost potential to do more things with more bandwidth.

Yet designers seem to be embracing new forms of accessibility as synonymous with innovation. It is certainly breathing new life into a flagging design economy. Many design agencies readily offer accessibility services to clients, often advising about the legislation. Some even position themselves as the arbiters of the law, arguing that it is cheaper to make changes than pay out legal fees. Listen to the advice of Dave Travis of London-based usability consultants Userfocus: 'The DRC are likely to bring a test case in the near future. We recommend you act now before the DRC make an example of you.' (4)

Meanwhile, businesses are seizing inclusive design as part of their corporate social responsibility agenda. By making their websites accessible, they are trying to promote a 'responsible' public image. As Helen Petrie, of the team at City University who conducted accessibility testing for the DRC's report, says: 'The technical coding of the site is just one part. Businesses that take social responsibility and their brand image seriously need to initiate cross-departmental accessibility strategies. Accessibility needs to be part of a company's culture and processes.' (5)

You can't legislate for good design
But setting standards for accessibility is likely to stifle innovation in the long run. Campaigning to make the internet more 'usable' will actually mean it will become of less use for everyone. By forcing the internet to be accessible to everyone, there is a risk that we are levelling it down, reducing its potential to suit many competing, latent, unrealised needs.

The potential of technology isn't always apparent to society. Just as the internal combustion engine took time to take hold, the same is true of the internet. Only through experimentation, innovation and often novel applications will we be able to develop it further. Such developments may initially be unusable, only fathomable to geeks. But their benefits will be of general benefit over time.

By continuously innovating, we will solve more problems than we currently have answers to. Inclusivity runs counter to this process. Without an unfettered ability to innovate pushing forward new ideas, society as a whole will stagnate. Standards, guidelines and legislation will tend to mean that present capabilities provide the model for the future.

A technical standard like Extensible Mark-up Language (XML) came out of the world of geeks, but its application has been useful to everyone - including disabled people. Advances in publishing mean that separating how something is presented from its content means that many more devices can translate the original piece of content into formats suitable for the device you're viewing it on. This means greater flexibility for publishers and for users. The page can be displayed differently for any number of devices and formats, including mobile phones, PDAs, emails or even screen-readers. For the visually impaired, this has tremendous benefits.

New areas of innovation could be cut in the bud. One under-researched area is how to visualise complex data and information, making it more meaningful and easier to digest. A good example is the news aggregator project News Map, produced by the designer Marcos Weskamp. The tool visualises news produced by Google's news feeds, presenting top stories broken down by common categories such as politics or sport, and also by the country they appear in. It allows you easily to understand through colour and the size of the headlines which are the most popular stories currently being linked through Google's news service. Of course, the 'reasonable adjustments' demanded by the new legislation will make the commercial application of these kinds of innovation much more difficult to achieve.

Such innovation is less likely to happen when design is placed under the legislative microscope. You can't legislate for good design. Legislation means that the designer succumbs to precaution, aware that everything he does has legal consequences. Instead of designers rationally looking at problems, they will start to become interpreters of the law - checking that this or that application complies with the relevant standards.

The problem of inclusive design is that it mistakes political deeds with design solutions. And the more political designers become, the less they are able to represent and objectify problems in new and novel ways.

Since its inception, the internet has always had a positive universal appeal. Anyone could access anything on it with a phone line and a modest computer. And Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, is keen for it to be kept inclusive: 'The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.' (6)

Indeed, the internet has proved useful for those who are disabled or housebound - for example, home shopping has been a great help to those who are unable to get around on their own, and the web has enabled them to access information and content in new ways. It is true that a civilised society will accommodate the needs of disabled people, just as it does other groups with special needs. But it is only by arguing for unfettered innovation - rather than prescriptive regulations - that we will continue to raise the bar for the whole of society.

Playing politics should be left to the politicians - and innovative design should be left to the designers.

Martyn Perks is a user experience consultant, and a writer and speaker on design, IT and business. See his website

(1) See the Disability Discrimination Act 1995

(2) The Web: Access and Inclusion for Disabled People (.pdf 406 KB), Disability Rights Commission, 14 April 2004. See the Disability Rights Commission and Royal National Institute of the Blind websites

(3) See the Web Accessibility Initiative section of the World Wide Web Consortium website; the Bobby section of the Watchfire website

(4) Web Accessibility: No More Mr Nice Guy, David Travis, Userfocus, 23 April 2004

(5) Olympic website fails to get gold for disabled users, Helen Petrie, Usablity News, 25 August 2004

(6) Web Accessibility Initiative section of the World Wide Web Consortium website



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