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How to improve your websites accessibility

 

Accessibility. Close your eyes and try typing it on your keyboard. Difficult isn’t it. Do you know how to spell it? How many C’s? How many S’s? Are we all seeing double here?

Consider this. 2 million people in the UK may not even see it at all. Why? Because this is the number of people who are blind or partially sighted. And if just not being able to see was a problem, how do this percentage of the population use the internet?

Fingers on a keyboard © Kirsty Robertson / FlickrFingers on a keyboard © Kirsty Robertson / Flickr

As the majority of us happily peruse the web without really thinking about how we’re viewing content and by what means – tablet, smart phone, or desktop – there are others out there who struggle to read the same websites, if at all!

It’s these issues that specific organisations pride themselves on solving and striving to set examples of for good digital accessibility. For instance, RNIB, Guide Dogs, GOV.UK.

However, for the rest of us it may not be that straight forward, or in fact we may be blissfully unaware of the implications our sites have for people who are blind or partially sighted. So how do we ensure these visitors are being catered for when they browse our sites?

Having worked in the digital team at Guide Dogs, I learnt a lot about the positive impacts that good digital accessibility can have on people. Before this, I was one of those blissfully unaware people who had no idea blind people used computers, let alone the internet. It’s quite humbling to work with blind or partially sighted people who can use and read a computer and web pages more efficiently and faster than you!

Armed with these new skills and knowledge, I set about assessing WWF-UK’s accessibility offering.

At first glance, we have been using accessibility fairly well and to a basic level: content is generally alt texted, text links are fairly appropriate and labelling is sometimes in place; contrasting issues exist, but mostly okay.

However, there are always improvements to be made, and where does HTML and CSS fit into this? How well are staffs informed about digital accessibility? At what level are we complying? All questions that organisations should consider when updating their websites.

Working on our own sites’ accessibility project involved strategy formulation, an audit, a report and training. At the time, the audit told us that at our current levels of accessibility, we’re performing generally just below the AA standard, set out within the WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) guidelines designed by W3 (World Wide Web Consortium), with some minor on-going discrepancies preventing a full compliance.

For an organisation that does not have a large accessible audience, this is a good level. It is a very good level to be at compared to many organisations. Some corporates even barely operate at ‘A standard’ levels! So we’re doing very well in comparison.

Testing

WCAG guidelines are a bit of a mine-field. Some experts advise dipping into and not following them exclusively. After all, they are guidelines. However, they are a very useful point of reference for assessing and improving on your own practices.

Having a basic knowledge of the guidelines and the detail, enabled me to carry out some of my own testing of the sites.

There are many different tools you can use to conduct accessibility testing on sites. Many of which are free and readily available. For instance, Firefox has its plug-in Web Developer 2.0. WAVE and Checkmycolours (for contrasting), can both be accessed from Internet Explorer and Chrome.

All of these tools proved to be effective in formulating results and a top line look at where our accessibility performance was for the sites.

Asking the experts

Joshua Marshall, developer and accessibility lead, GOV.UK © wearefuturegov.comJoshua Marshall, developer and accessibility lead, GOV.UK © wearefuturegov.com

Checking our own site against written standards and conducting testing has provided a strong starting point, but having real life experiences and asking real people, to emulate, is a good idea. In order to fulfil this, I drew on my former colleagues’ expertise working exclusively in the accessibility field and those I have networked with at events, to assist.

Input from Roger Whitton, Accessibility Consultant at Guide Dogs, and Joshua Marshall, Head of Accessibility at GOV.UK – both experts in their field – provided strong overviews of our sites, as well as taking the time to present to colleagues at the Living Planet Centre (if you ask very nicely and wave sushi at him, Josh is very persuadable).

In addition to Rogers’ visit, he kindly arranged for guide dog puppy Dasher to visit our offices as part of his socialisation, ahead of his imminent departure to guide dog training school.

This was a welcome distraction for staff and continued to champion the importance of positioning accessibility – in all its forms – in the minds of those within the organisation.

Puppy walker Denise with guide dog puppy Dasher ,visitng the Living Planet Centre © WWF-UKPuppy walker Denise with guide dog puppy Dasher ,visitng the Living Planet Centre © WWF-UK

Training our staff

As I am responsible for training for all staff on our content management systems (CMS) for the website and our blog site, this presented me with an opportunity to assess and improve accessibility understanding and practice within the organisation.

It’s probably true of many that those creating and uploading content to sites don’t know the importance of ‘alt text’ and why ‘click here’ is a big ‘no no’. I think this is quite common.

Conducting training over the past couple of years has taught me that we have a basic level of knowledge around accessibility. However, it’s easy to forget the importance of this. Therefore, I have set about integrating best digital accessibility practices into my training sessions.

As a result, we’ve seen some real improvements in peoples understanding, but we still have some way to go to improve the overall ‘digital first’ philosophy that the organisation is striving to achieve, of which accessibility is apart.

Remembering to put accessibility measures in place for content remains a challenge. Therefore, I am at present putting in place some measures which I hope will improve people’s understanding and value of accessibility. This includes a seminar in our annual Learning Week, where members of staff have the opportunity to learn new skills; a dedicated page on our intranet about digital accessibility, and running regular digital drop-in workshops.

In order to keep our heads above the water when it comes to AA compliance standards, and within WCAG guidelines, we need accessibility to be as commonplace and second natures as typing on a keyboard: we don’t always have to look at the keys, but we know which ones we’re going to press without thinking about it.

If we can get to that level of operation, we’ll be meeting the majority of standards, have a greater understanding and empathy for all of our audiences and at the same time we as individuals will be upskilling ourselves.

What next?

So the next time you start writing copy on your website, think about how everyone will read it, not just how they’ll see it.

Find out more about International Day of Persons with Disability

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