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Are Accessibility Statements Useful?

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In: Articles

By Leona Tomlinson

Published on November 12, 2008

What is an accessibility statement?

An accessibility statement provides website visitors with information on how to utilize any accessibility features implemented, together with known barriers and how to overcome them. This information is usually presented on a dedicated page within the website.

It is not compulsory or a requirement of Section 508 or the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines to provide an accessibility statement, but since around 2002 accessibility advocates such as Mark Pilgrim recommended that websites should include an accessibility statement. This has been further supported by both the UK Government’s Delivering Inclusive Websites Policy and the recent PAS 78 Guidance Document.

Over the years we have seen some excellent articles published on the topic of how to write an accessibility statement. Mark Pilgrim and Gez Lemon have, for me, written the most informative articles in this area, and both are worthy of a read.

More recently, however, there have been a number of articles written which question the usefulness of accessibility statements. The most notable of these, by Rosie Sherry and Peter Krantz, conclude that accessibility statements are not useful and should therefore be avoided. Reading these articles and associated comments has led me to investigate why the usefulness of accessibility statements is being questioned. As such, this article will look at the benefits of providing an accessibility statement together with common problems, before evaluating whether accessibility statements are useful.

Benefits of providing an accessibility statement

To demonstrate how to use accessibility features provided

By demonstrating how to use the accessibility features implemented on a website, it empowers the website visitor to improve their browsing experience. For instance, they may be interested in how to make the text size larger so that it is more comfortable to read, or find out information about making the website speak with a speech output program such as Browsealoud or Textic. When explaining how to use accessibility features it is often useful to reference websites that are dedicated to explaining this information. An excellent resource in this area is the BBC’s My Web My Way website.

To detail known barriers

Despite best efforts, there may be areas of the website which are still inaccessible. Therefore, a known barriers section within the accessibility statement will enable this information to be provided up-front, together with alternative ways of obtaining the information or service.

To provide a point of contact

Website visitors who experience difficulties whilst browsing will benefit from dedicated accessibility contact information. As such, the query will go directly to the team responsible for the accessibility of the website. This will likely result in the query being dealt with quickly, efficiently, and to the satisfaction of the website visitor.

Common issues with accessibility statements

They can be difficult to locate

The accessibility link is often placed outside the main viewing area of the web page such as within the footer area, thus making it very difficult to locate. This is exacerbated for website visitors using assistive technologies. For instance a screen reader user would have to listen to excessive content before encountering the link and may even give up, thinking one is not present, whilst a magnification software user may have to spend lots of time searching for the link as only a small proportion of the page is visible at any one time.

Additionally, for keyboard only users, the location of the accessibility link can result in excessive key presses in order to select and then activate the link. The Digital Media Access Group carried out a study, Evaluating the Usability of Online Accessibility Information, which reviewed websites from a broad range of sectors. The study concluded that participants found it very challenging to locate accessibility information on most of the websites reviewed. This was attributed to the accessibility link being small, of low contrast, and outside the main viewing area.

They can be too technical

Some accessibility statements contain too much detail on conformance and technologies utilized in making the website accessible. Whilst this information shows that the website has been designed with accessibility in mind, it does not provide any benefit to general website visitors. As this information is often placed at the beginning of the accessibility statement, it is likely to confuse website visitors before they even have a chance to read about the accessibility features provided.

Typical examples include:

  1. Our website conforms to the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Priority 1 and 2.
  2. Our website complies with the requirements of Section 508.
  3. Our HTML is valid and conforms to XHTML 1.0 Strict.
  4. All pages on this website validate to CSS2.

They contain “what” rather than “how”

Along with technical information, accessibility statements often list the accessibility features they provide, rather than how to use them. The following is an example of what can typically be found in an accessibility statement:

  1. All text sizes are relative.
  2. All images have an alt attribute.
  3. Style sheets have been used to separate presentation from content.
  4. Headings are semantically marked up.
  5. Tables have been correctly marked up with headings.
  6. Link text is unique which makes it make sense when taken out of context.

Information such as this will not benefit the website visitor. Taking point 1 as an example—would a website visitor be able to make the connection that “all text sizes are relative” means they can increase the size of the text in their browser?

They can be overlooked

Accessibility is a funny old word and not everyone knows its meaning. When people ask my occupation and I say I’m a Web Accessibility Consultant—most look back at me blankly, yet these are people who use websites on a daily basis! Now these people may not need to increase the size of the text or change colors just yet, but when they do, are they going to know where to look? It appears that we are failing website visitors from the beginning by using such an obscure term. Perhaps one of the biggest issues with these statements is the name itself. The Digital Media Access Group study concluded that many of the participants felt the term ‘accessibility’was vague or confusing and should be replaced by an alternative term.

Are accessibility statements useful?

In principle accessibility statements are useful. They have the potential to greatly improve the browsing experience of website visitors who may require the use of accessibility features implemented within the website.

However, at present accessibility statements in general seem to add little value in assisting website visitors. They are often difficult to find and contain complex language and technical jargon that can be bewildering.

The following principles should be considered when writing or reviewing an existing accessibility statement to help improve its value to website visitors:

  1. Make the accessibility link prominent and provide it in a consistent location so that website visitors can find it easily. Ensure the link is within the main viewing area and can be accessed easily with various assistive technologies and input devices.
  2. Provide rich content that explains how to use the accessibility features provided, rather than just listing the features themselves.
  3. Separate the content into sections and provide headings for each section. This will aid the readability and navigation of the information being provided.
  4. Provide contact information in various formats so that website visitors can directly contact the team responsible for accessibility queries.
  5. Actively promote feedback from website visitors. Use comments from website visitors to continually improve the website and the content within the accessibility statement.
  6. Provide a known barriers section which details inaccessible areas of the website along with alternative ways of obtaining the information or services.
  7. List technical and conformance information at the end of the accessibility statement. This will allow the information to be readily available, whilst not being placed in a prominent position.

For an example of these principles in practice, please visit Agoo IT’s ‘Help using this website’ page.

Is there a need for standardization?

Whilst we can promote the inclusion of accessibility statements through guidance documentation and articles such as this one, I believe that with so many websites on the internet today we have reached the point where standardization is necessary. Possible routes could be to make accessibility information a requirement of Section 508 and the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Alternatively, a formalized standards document similar to PAS 78 could be written, focusing solely on the provision of accessibility information.

However, before standardization can even be considered, the following points would need to be discussed further:

  1. The term “Accessibility Statement” needs to be reviewed as it does not accurately define the content which it should contain. The term ‘statement’ promotes the listing of conformance information and accessibility features implemented. Perhaps ‘Help using this website’, ‘Using this website’ or ‘About this website’ would be more appropriate?
  2. Is there a requirement for a universal accessibility statement template to ensure that information is provided in a consistent format? The template would provide a consistent design and format to website visitors, allowing key information to be located quickly.
  3. Where should the accessibility link be located so that it is consistent throughout all websites, and is clearly visible and audible to website visitors?

Conclusion

I hope this article has provided some guidance on the benefits of accessibility statements, along with some principles for improving them for your site visitors. Additionally, it is hoped that the article will provoke discussion into the future direction of accessibility statements and whether standardization is indeed necessary.

I look forward to your comments and discussions on this topic.

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Related Topics: Web Standards, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), Content, Accessibility

 

Leona Tomlinson is a Senior Accessibility and Usability Consultant with Agoo IT. Leona has in-depth knowledge of how disabled users access websites and experience of the assistive technologies they use. Every website audit Agoo IT undertakes includes an expert assistive technology review with screen reading software, voice recognition software, magnification software, keyboard only, text only browsers and the color blind analyzer.

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