Web access guidelines 'too rigid for real world'

The international "WCAG" guidelines for ensuring websites are accessible to disabled people are often too rigid to apply in the real world, a leading accessibility analyst told yesterday's eAccess 12 conference in London.

"WCAG" stand for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the global collaborative industry body which oversees web standards. The guidelines work using a checklist system under which sites either comply or fail, but accessibility consultant Jonathan Hassell told the conference this approach failed to capture the whole picture.

"WCAG is good at telling you what you must do, but lousy at telling you why you must do it, how, and how much it will cost you," Hassell said. "What you need to know is when you are making a site, are there particular decisions that are key for accessibility? You need to know the implications of options, and to make a justifiable decision at each stage."

Hassell was promoting the use of a British Standard which forms a code of practice for commissioning and developing accessible sites, and for which he was lead author in 2010. The snappily-named BS 8878 is not a technical checklist but guidance on embedding accessibility into an organisation's culture, governance and everyday business processes, rather than relearning lessons project by project.

"We're not saying that WCAG is bad, we're saying it needs to be done within a process - it is about changing your organisation so stuff that comes out has those values embedded," he said. The standard leads all groups of staff, from developers and designers to project managers, marketing and strategy staff and senior managers, through 16 steps which see them working out which decisions will affect the accessibility of the final website; consider the implications of each decision; and record what was decided.

"You need to fix the problem in the process, not the product, to prevent it happening again down the line," Hassell said. The new government web services portal gov.uk is applying the standard, as is Royal Mail, Hassell said.

Delegates at the session from the public and third sectors had mixed tales to tell about their own experiences trying to ensure their websites were accessible. "We had our fingers burned", said a representative of one major charity. "We have just spent a lot of money on a system that was supposed to be accessible but wasn't - it was partly the supplier's fault and partly our fault for not specifying properly."

Another delegate from a large Whitehall department said he faced an uphill struggle trying to ensure his department's computer systems were accessible, as action tended to be postponed.

"The received wisdom is that everything will be accessible eventually but right now we can't do anything about it because new systems are somewhere down the line, and our legacy systems are too old to fix."

eAccess 12 http://www.headstar.com/eaccess12

BS 8878 http://shop.bsigroup.com/bs8878

WCAG 2.0 http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG/

Hassell Inclusion http://www.hassellinclusion.com