To what extent can websites owned by UK Small-to-Medium Enterprises be considered accessible?

1. Introduction

1.1. Background to the Study

In the last six years, the number of British households connecting to the Internet has increased by 45% and now stands at 16.5 million homes – 86% of which have broadband connections (ONS, 2008; p.1). When asked, 93% of respondents in the 16-24 age group claimed to have used the Internet in the last 3 months (ONS, 2008; p.4). One cannot fail to recognise the pervasive nature of this medium and not just for personal matters: 97% of businesses have a broadband Internet connection and 93% have a corporate website (BERR, 2008; p.2).

With a brother who is deaf, the author has direct experience of the importance of the Internet for some disabled people. The spread of the Internet has opened up additional channels through which disabled people can communicate on equal terms with others – an idea championed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C):

The accessibility barriers to print, audio, and visual media can be much more easily overcome through Web technologies.

W3C, 2005a

The W3C was founded in 1994 as an industry consortium dedicated to building consensus around Web technologies (W3C, 2007). The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) was formed as a department of the W3C to promote the concept of web accessibility:

Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web.

W3C, 2005a

Henry (2006) takes this idea a step further, suggesting a universal perspective to accessibility:

Accessibility is about designing user interfaces so that more people can use your product effectively in more situations.

Henry, 2006

In 1999 the WAI published Version 1.0. of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG – sometimes referred to as web standards): a set of recommendations for removing barriers to web content. In the same year, the Disability Discrimination Act became law in the UK. Whilst WCAG checkpoints aid, (but do not guarantee) compliance with the DDA, these are only guidelines and are therefore voluntary. Higgs attributes this lack of legal status to the poor uptake of web standards:

The result of creating unofficial, laissez-faire web standards means that web developers are not bound to produce truly ‘valid’ sites. The majority of web browsers will render totally incorrect mark–up, as long as it contains partially recognisable syntax…

(Higgs, 2006; Section 1.2.)

A common argument used against implementing accessibility relies upon making unjustified assumptions about disabled web users, deciding for example that visually-impaired users do not need access to a car hire website since they cannot legally drive:

…a company’s managing director might ask his personal assistant, who is blind, to make arrangements for a business trip. This could quite conceivably require the blind person to book the MD a hire car from an online rental agency.

(Sloan, 2001; Section 4.1.3.)

Adam and Kreps (2006) encapsulate issues of web access within the social model of disability, insisting that:
Disability can be created (…) by a society that insists on a particular norm (…) designing technology in such a way that groups of disabled people cannot use it (Adam and Kreps, 2006; pp.213).

Many disabled web users rely upon specialist equipment termed ‘assistive technology‘ to access the internet and it is these people whom inaccessible sites fail most often. Providing textual descriptions of non-decorative images (WCAG Checkpoint 1.1.) is an essential provision for blind users and one of the most common failings identified in previous research. The astounding cost of much assistive technology (Pedley, 2005) underlines the importance of adhering to accessibility standards so that these users are able to fully utilise such equipment.

In 2007, there were an estimated 6.5 million ‘IT disabled’ individuals in the UK and a further 6 million people with dyslexia, holding a combined spending power of £120 billion (AbilityNet, 2007; p.1). Although some older figures suggest only a third of those with registered disabilities have access to the Internet (Low, 2003) as the UK population ages, the proportion of Internet users developing accessibility requirements can be expected to increase (AbilityNet, 2009).

1.2. Research Purpose

Among the main findings of a study of 1,000 UK website home pages in 2004 by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) was that: 81% fail to satisfy the most basic Web Accessibility Initiative category (DRC, 2004; pg. 13). Similar work by (Petrie et al, (2005), (Williams and Rattray (2003) and (Nielsen and Pernice (2001) among others adopt similar conclusions and are explored further in Section 2.

As a direct result of the DRC findings, Publicly Available Specification 78 (PAS 78) (DRC/BSI, 2006) was developed with the intention of helping UK businesses adopt accessible websites through a series of best–practice implementation guidelines. Shortly after the launch of PAS 78, Oxton (2006) had reservations about the benefits to small businesses:

This document seems to be aimed at projects with plenty of budget (…) Usability studies, hiring an accessibility consultant so on and so forth. I should run the ideas presented past some of my clients who don’t have infinite budgets and see what they think of the idea.

(Oxton, 2006, cited in (Higgs, 2006; Section 1.2.)

Three years hence, it was deemed worthwhile attempting to establish whether PAS 78 (soon to become a British Standard) has had any impact on UK–owned websites. Furthermore, since no previous studies had done so, the research was centred on small businesses in particular. The focal theory of this research contended that with considerably smaller budgets, SME compliance with WCAG would reflect the attitudes and awareness highlighted by Higgs (2006; Section 5) and could be worse than the outcome of previous studies focused on larger websites. Furthermore it was held that failure to comply with web standards would be reflected to some extent in the evaluations conducted by disabled and non-disabled user groups.