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

2. Literature Review

2.1. Introduction

The study of disability and the World Wide Web is a recent phenomenon, which gained much of it’s momentum alongside the mainstream adoption of the Web itself. In tandem with this increased popularity, the Web has made greater efforts to appeal to mainstream users through the use of graphics and dynamic content. Lewis, writing in Lewis and Klauber (2002) laments the passing of text–based browsing and claims that this user–friendly Web was not very friendly to me (Lewis and Klauber, 2002; p.138).

Underpinning this author’s research is the attitude that disability on the Web can be seen as socially constructed — that the technology exists to enable full participation for disabled users, but that it has yet to be used correctly. Adam and Kreps (2006; p. 211–213) give an account of the social model of disability from which this assertion is drawn.

2.2. The Web and the Disabled

2.2.1. Disability and the Web

Dr. Zhangxu encapsulates the importance of the Internet to certain user groups:

To me (a quadriplegic) the Internet occupies the most important part in my life. It is my feet that can take me to any part of the world; it is my hands which help me to accomplish my work; it is my best friend — it gives my life meaning.

Dr. Zhangxu, cited in McMullin, 2002

2.2.2. The World Wide Web Consortium

Having created the WCAG, it seems natural to enquire upon what basis the WAI asserts the right to stipulate the requirements that a website must meet in order to be considered ‘accessible’. The WAI uses W3C processes published in a document which outlines the structure and procedures which lie behind the codification of accessibility recommendations (W3C, 2005b).

In broad terms, the W3C is keen to emphasise community involvement via Working Groups, and every recommendation goes through an iterative drafting process to account for community input. In order to contribute as a member of the community, a strict nomination process is followed.

2.3. The Web and the Law

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (OPSI, 2008a) was enacted in an attempt to provide a legal remedy in cases of alleged discrimination against what it defines as a ‘disabled person’ (see Appendix 1). Part III of the DDA was introduced by the UK Government in 1999. Despite regular additions being made to the act, it is evolving at a much slower pace than the Internet itself, and some doubt has persisted over how the act governs discrimination via the Web.

Sloan (2001) provides convincing analysis of the Act and it’s applicability to the provision of services via the Internet, conceding that there is no mention of a website as an example of a service (Sloan, 2001; Section 2.2), but concluding that:
It would otherwise seem anomalous to differentiate between a customer who visits a travel agent and another who wishes to use its online booking facility (Sloan, 2001; Section 2.2).

However, the discussion of the DDA and its applicability to the Web in the UK is still currently entirely hypothetical as no case citing this act has yet been brought against a website owner. Therefore there is no interpretation of this law under UK jurisdiction available. To advance his analysis, (Sloan (2001; Section 4.1.1) looks further afield to the landmark case of Maguire vs. Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) (2000) which was heard in front of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) in 2000.

As a blind man, Bruce Maguire used a non–graphical browser to navigate the Web. He brought his complaint on the grounds that he could not use the site in question owing to a lack of provision of alternate text among other issues, including a failure by SOCOG to provide Braille souvenir programmes. The content of his complaint implies that SOCOG had failed to consider disability in more than one area of their offering.

HREOC held that discrimination had indeed taken place, and crucially that by creating a website, SOCOG was offering a service to the public. This meant that it could therefore be considered under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992, which Sloan asserts to be very similar (Sloan, 2001; Section 4.1.3) to the UK DDA. For failing to make what where ruled to be reasonable adjustments which it decided would not cause the defendant undue hardship SOCOG were ordered to pay AU$20,000 damages to Maguire.

It is important to note that in presenting this case, HREOC referred to the WCAG (Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2000), impressing with this author the universal acceptance of this document as a benchmark of elementary accessibility.

2.4. The State of Current Research

2.4.1. Accessibility

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) was formed alongside the enactment of the UK DDA and subsequently became part of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in 2007. The DRC commissioned City University London to study 1,000 UK websites in 2004 using both automated and manual testing techniques (DRC, 2004; p.5).

The study found that the vast majority of British sites did not even meet basic accessibility criteria. The report sets out a number of recommendations involving all stakeholders, but specifically relevant to this proposal is the recommendation that:

…website developers should accept that good practice entails attending and responding to the needs of disabled people.

DRC, 2004; p.42

Recognising an equally important role, the report goes on to suggest that website commissioners must:

…obtain a better understanding of the accessibility needs of disabled people, and recognise that such improved understanding is in their commercial interest.

DRC, 2004; p.42

This report can inform the research design of this project as it contains detailed information about the methodologies employed and in particular details the criteria used to assess the websites under study. The work is particularly valuable to this research because of its large sample size and the selection of a representative sample of websites used by the British public (DRC, 2004; p.11).

Furthermore, this study goes beyond reliance upon the potentially misleading automated tests which constitute the primary research tool in a significant proportion of the less–valid research which this author has found. The DRC studied the relevance of automated testing tools by comparing user–evaluations of 10% of the sample with any checkpoint violations highlighted automatically. In vindication of (Nielsen and Pernice (2001), no correlation was found between these two assessment methods, and the study concluded that automated testing alone was not sufficient to guarantee an accessible site.

The EHRC is classified as a non–departmental public body and receives public funds whilst maintaining independence from the UK Government. It is charged with responsibility for promoting the Human Rights Act, 1998 and for: Developing an evidence–based understanding of the causes and effects of inequality for people across Britain (EHRC, 2007).

The EHRC has a vast back–catalogue of research into equality and rights issues and considerable expertise in this area. Whilst a conflict of interests within the ranks of its commissioners cannot be ruled out, considerable damage would be done to the organisation’s stated aims if it took to needlessly victimising innocent organisations in its research. It is for this reason that this work is taken in good faith, but with the caveat that the influence of Government can be difficult to separate from the funding it provides to the organisation.

This work is now beginning to show its age however, especially in an industry which is evolving so rapidly. Following on from its publication we have seen an exponential increase in popularity of dynamic Web 2.0 sites such as Facebook and YouTube, bringing about a sea–change in the way in which the Web presents information. In a bid to locate more recent research on this topic, a study by (Krunic and Ružic–Dimitrijevic (2007) was found, and is mentioned in this review only on account of its currency.

This research contains innumerate flaws, the work only succeeds in mentioning previous accessibility studies conducted by the authors themselves and fails to issue any form of critique, even upon their own work. The research methodology is poorly documented, failing to illustrate how the websites under study were chosen, and what, if any, randomisation was applied to the sample in order to ensure a fair cross–section of the population was tested.

Statistical analysis is where the work completely falls under the weight of its own omissions, with the authors concluding that the number of accessible websites decreases with every additional Web page tested (Krunic and Ružic–Dimitrijevic, 2007; p.79). If it is possible to extrapolate a precise meaning from such a clumsy inference, then it can still be contended that the error made here is to assume that a site which raises no checkpoint violations is congruent with a truly accessible website, which as the DRC study highlighted, is not the case at all.

The Informing Science Journal claims to be academically peer refereed (Informing Science Journal Homepage, 2008), but sadly the quality of the aforementioned research only succeeds in casting doubt upon all of the work reported within this publication.

2.4.2. Usability

Despite the commendable efforts of the W3C, how individuals use websites is both personal and idiosyncratic and some parties would argue that WCAG is just the beginning. Nielsen and Pernice (2001) sampled 104 American and Japanese participants with a control group of 20 able–bodied users and found that: Web usability is about three times better for sighted users than for users with visual impairments (Nielsen and Pernice, 2001; p.3).

Developing this argument, they state that technical accessibility is not sufficient, and claim that accessible or not, on many sites it is easy to get lost and easy to get fatigued as a disabled user (Nielsen and Pernice, 2001; p.7).

The bulk of the report focuses on recommendations following on from their research. The efforts of the Nielsen Norman Group (2009) are laudable, and the organisation has put itself at the forefront of the Web usability debate for many years. However, it should be remembered that it is a commercial organisation offering usability consultancy and training services for quite considerable sums of money. Therefore it could be noted that there is an impetus for the organisation to push forward ideas of usability, and to push beyond those concepts which can be automatically tested by freely–available software. Illustrating the social model of disability, Adam and Kreps (2006; p.212), citing Oliver (1998; p.1448) pertinently remark: disability is big business.

Conversely, whilst the work of Nielsen and Pernice is now quite old it still discusses many of the problems which remain prevalent today. In a supplementary note added in 2007 the authors comment on the protracted development of assistive technologies. Furthermore, this research continues to concur with later studies which are still lamenting the status quo of web accessibility standards in practice.

2.4.3. Current Gaps in Knowledge

As Higgs (2006; Section 2.7) comments, all of the research found so far fails to discriminate between smaller businesses and larger enterprises. The research conducted by Higgs points towards a worrying lack of progress in raising awareness of web accessibility issues in the two years which separate his research from the work of the DRC. Higgs claims 73% of his respondents have an awareness of the DDA, yet only 15% indicated an awareness of any website legislation and only 38.5% stated an awareness of the term website accessibility (Higgs, 2006; Section 4.5).

In the context of definitive research, Higgs’ study suffers from a small sample size of 30 respondents, but it is the only study the author could find on SME awareness of web accessibility issues. The research was awarded a Distinction from Loughborough University. It has also received international acclaim within the web design industry, although it should be remembered that this work represents the first foray of an undergraduate into the world of academic research. The author’s website is an impressive resume of design–centred endeavour, but demonstrates no additional academic research of any nature.

The literature review conducted by Higgs demonstrates a distinct lack of peer–reviewed academic sources, with the author giving too much weight to industry practitioner comment. This provides a colourful survey of the issues at hand, but raises questions about the amount of care taken in conducting this study.

Higgs illustrates the limitations of his own work and suggests that future study might involve an assessment of the level of standards compliance in UK SME websites (Higgs, 2006; Section 6.3). As the current extent of knowledge in this field, it seems appropriate for this research project to continue where the work of Higgs ended.

2.5. Conclusion

This review has raised some interesting points:

  • Despite no specific reference, the UK DDA should be considered to apply to websites, in which case the scope of this legislation covers any website which offers a service to the public.
  • With reference to comparable international case law, UK legislation places a burden upon website owners to ensure that their websites comply with WCAG.
  • Awareness of the applicability of legislation to websites within UK organisations is poor.
  • The author must be wary of extrapolating beyond the data: a website which passes the WCAG checkpoints is not necessarily accessible in practice.
  • There are proponents who champion the notion of usability over tick–box accessibility and there is research which confirms the limitations of automated evaluation, citing the importance of stakeholder evaluation as key consideration in accessible design.
  • The totality of evidence evaluated has lead the author to the conclusion that whilst some developments are being made, the Web is not significantly less inaccessible than it was at the beginning of the millennium. This outcome is repeatedly found in studies irrespective of location, market sector, sample size, theoretical sympathies or research methodologies employed.
  • The level of standards compliance adhered to by UK SMEs is not known, and neither is there a measure of end–user experiences of UK SME websites.