What is web accessibility?
As more and more museums turn to the web as a means of providing new services and reaching new audiences, the issue of accessibility has become ever more pressing. Web accessibility concerns the creation of online resources, websites, documents and interactives that can be accessed by the widest possible range of users, whatever their level of technical expertise or specific requirements. Because the web is primarily a visual medium, the focus has tended to be on providing access for users with visual impairments. In practice, however accessibility is relevant to all users, whatever their requirements.
The term ‘accessibility’ covers 3 areas:
- Technological accessibility – ensuring that users can gain access to your content regardless of the software and hardware they are using to browse the web;
- Physical accessibility – ensuring that users can gain access to your content regardless of any specific disability they may have;
- Intellectual accessibility – ensuring that the tone and content of your website are appropriate and comprehensible to its users, and that content is structured in a way which facilitates the retrieval of information. This is also often known as usability.
Who sets the standards?
The single most important source of information and guidance on this area is the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C is the body that establishes and approves standards for the internet, and the purpose of the initiative is to reach an agreement on the minimum technical requirements for a web-based document to be considered accessible.
These requirements are set out in a series of guidelines. Increasingly, the WAI guidelines are being accepted as the de facto standard for accessible web content. Both the European Parliament and the UK Government have made clear commitments to meeting WAI standards for all public-funded websites over the next few years. In the UK, the Office of the e-Envoy has published its web design guidelines which mandate compliance with the WAI across government-funded websites including those managed by local government. In support of this, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) is putting pressure on UK cultural organisations to create accessible online resources. It is therefore essential that your website meets, and hopefully exceeds, the WAI standard.
Users access web pages using a variety of different technologies, some of which are better able to cope with the different kinds of information available online than others. Creating web pages that are accessible to the widest possible range of technologies involves a variety of different approaches including:
The browser is the piece of software which displays the page on the user’s screen. There are a variety of different browsers in common usage, with different strengths and weaknesses. The two most popular are Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator. You should always test your website to ensure that it is viewable and usable using both browsers. You may also wish to check your website with the Opera browser, which is popular because of its specific functionality to address accessibility;
A computer screen is made up of a field of individual dots of light. The resolution of the screen determines how many dots per inch are used to display the image, in this case the web page. You should always check to ensure that your page is still viewable on a small screen at both very low and very high resolutions;
A plugin is a piece of software which a user must download to their computer in order to view specific pieces of content on a web page. Popular plugins include Macromedia’s Shockwave and Flash for viewing animated or interactive content, and Adobe’s Acrobat for viewing Portable Document Format (PDF) files. The use of plugins forces the user to download the software, and this can prejudice users with older systems or slower Internet connections;
The interface is the physical technology with which the user interacts with the web page. Traditionally, this will be either a mouse, trackball or similar motion-based pointing device. However, many users prefer to navigate through pages using the keyboard. A technology called ‘Actionkeys’, part of the WAI specification, will enable them to do this. You should always ensure that provision is made to allow keyboard navigation;
Different technologies allow users to view Internet pages at different speeds. In particular, older computers connected to the Internet through a standard telephone line, may take some time to download a page once it has been requested. For this reason, it is always advisable to keep file sizes small for your pages;
A Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) is a text file which contains information about how text and images are to be displayed throughout your website. It saves a great deal of time because you don’t need to code this information into each individual page of your site. This in turn reduces files sizes, leading to faster download speeds. It also allows users to override your specifications and provide their own settings, for example, displaying text in a larger font size.
The key element of physical accessibility is ensuring that nothing in the way you present content on a web page prevents anyone from seeing or reading it. This involves a number of specific concerns, including colour contrast, size and type of fonts and the provision of alternative formats for any content which relies primarily on the use of colour or visual cues. Full guidance is available from the Web Accessibility Initiative, and this will not be replicated here. The guidelines can be downloaded free of charge from the WAI.
Another excellent source of information and practical guidance on addressing specific areas of physical accessibility is the free Manual of Best Practice on the National Library for the Blind website.
A website is primarily a medium for delivering information over a network. In order for the information to be useful, it must be well-structured, easy to find, and up-to-date. Key elements of making a website intellectually accessible are:
This is the process by which a user moves through your website. Traditionally, this will involve a number of ‘top-level’ sections of the website, which are then further subdivided into a series of pages of content. A poor navigational system is one of the principle obstacles in using web resources. Always ensure that you use a minimal number of sections, and that their titles give a clear indication of the content they contain. Always enable the user to access any of the other sections or the ‘home’ page from anywhere in the site. Navigational elements such as buttons and links must be consistent both in function and location onscreen;
Users do not read as much text onscreen as they would on a printed page, nor are they used to the more formal language of commercial communications. You must always ensure that the content on your web pages is clear, concise, relevant, up-to-date and written in an approachable, easily-comprehensible style;
Every website has an address, or Unique Resource Locator (URL) which allows users to know where to direct their browser. The address is a key part of ensuring that people can access your information. Always select a domain name that is closely related to, or the same as, that of your museum. You may also wish to register variants of your name with different endings (for example, ‘mymuseum.co.uk’, ‘mymuseum.org.uk’ and ‘mymuseum.org’). It is usually a good idea to check other websites with the same or similar core name to ensure that your users are not directed to inappropriate content in error;
There are a range of tools and procedures available to ensure that your website complies with the requirements of the WAI. This is a process called ‘validation’. A validator is a piece of software which will visit your web pages and produce a report on the areas where you do not comply, along with suggested changes to ensure that you do. If your website meets the requirements of WAI, you may also be able to display a certificate on your homepage. Unfortunately, the most popular validation tool, the ‘Bobby’ software from the Centre for Applied and Social Technology has recently become a commercial product and is no longer available free of charge. There are, however, a number of similar tools, which will perform a similar function.
Where can I go for further advice and information?
This fact sheet is intended only as a quick introduction to the basic principles of web accessibility. There is an excellent range of information and guidance available to ensure that UK web resources are as widely accessible as possible. At a minimum, anyone considering creating a website or updating existing pages should refer to the following: