Accessible web design – an oxymoron

Ten years ago the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published their project Web Accessibility Initiative. Its aim was to make the web a fairer platform for all.

Today with calls for all websites to be accessible, how far have we come? Do all websites need to be accessible?

Or is it another case of bad policy making by committee?

Ghost of Christmas Past
When the World Wide Web was devised in 1989, a website consisted of linked text documents with little or no formatting, the perfect accessible content.

Within a few years it had been common to use different fonts, colours, tables for layout purposes and images. This was the start of the end of accessibility of web documents. By using ‘code tricks’ the webmasters could make their pages look more interesting, but by doing this made it harder for people who need accessibility aids to use websites.

1994 saw the birth to what was to become Netscape Navigator followed in the next year by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

Each Internet browser would let you view web pages, but both did not do it in exactly the same way. This upshot meant that what worked well in one browser would not necessarily work well in another.

Java and Flash brought more functionality but also brought more inconsistencies. In short what started as a totally accessible platform turned into a miss mashed melting pot of technologies and standards, which on the whole worked but not all the time and not for all the people.

Ghost of Christmas present
Today there are multiple ways of accessing the internet, on a variety of Internet browsers. And although there are standards each browser works to, there are still issues.
Today most web designers use a technology called CSS (cascading style sheets) to construct web pages. This technology has the advantage of separating the content (the words) from its presentation (the way it looks).  Like any good idea on paper it should work, and for the most part it does. Most websites who use CSS are more accessible to all users, but even a well crafted CSS based HTML page may still not be easy to read by someone using screen reader, or other such device.

By separating content from design, the W3C introduced a new unseen problem and that was to give webmasters the ability to play cat and mouse, with search engines like Google, unfairly promoting their websites. Search engines like Google rank individual pages of websites by scanning the text on them and deciding what’s important. By clever use of CSS, a webmaster can ‘target’ certain words for the benefit of Google, while formatting the page in such a way to show something quite different. Google realising the problem has tried to do something about it, but has only succeeded in making webmasters come up with more and more devious way of achieving the same thing.

Now here is the rub, if not all websites follow the same standard, what the point of that standard in the first place?

Ghost of Christmas Future
There are moves to make it illegal to make non accessible websites, but is this a good thing?

For most struggling small businesses they want to reduce their overheads to secure their business for the long term, but adding layer upon layer of legal red tape, all this does is reduce the abilities of small firms to compete.

Accessibility is important, but it is important to understand why, by making websites accessible we achieve the following:-
Make a website easier to rank on search engines like Google.
Make the content of websites more portable.
Make websites more useable.
Gain the widest possible audience for your product or service.

In short make your websites accessible for the right reasons – your audience.

The internet is never going to be completely accessible for all, but that will always be the price for free speech, anyone fancy the alternative?