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An enquiry into the acceptance of accessible web content and web design standards by UK small businesses.

Discussion

5.1 Introduction

The information gathered from primary sources added empirical data to the already documented knowledge and discussions. The research questions could now be analysed. All citations within this section are taken from the responses of the survey and questionnaires unless otherwise indicated.

5.2 Web Standards Knowledge Amongst UK Web Designers

The literature review unearthed a wide range of self-propelled campaigning and discussion from within the web developer community for the general improvement of the levels of accessibility within business. Although the aim of this study is not to evaluate the state of the web industry in the UK, it is important to make observations in order to satisfy questions on the low statistics for knowledge of web accessibility in SMEs (later in the discussion).

There appears to be a drive from within the sector (although possibly still in the minority) for all designers to become fully aware of these issues and adopt them. Aside from legal issues, the emphatic belief by the advocates makes them a leading voice in web design discussions generally. Most discussions about user centred design are laced with undertones of accessibility. There is very little in the way of ‘community’ amongst those who discuss ‘bad practice’, although it is known it still occurs (DRC 2004a) and there are a number of sites who actively dispute the worth of standards and the separation of presentation from content (Decloak n.d.). It is possible that the people engaged in designing poor-access sites are unaware of discussions, although Clark (2000) contests this thinking,

These “designers,” [sic] and I do use the term loosely, will work any necessary number of billable hours to create that selfsame sexy Flash animation (and even fire clients if they don’t play along), but the idea of adding a few more hours to make it accessible will be greeted with “The client won’t pay for that.” What that really means is “We don’t believe in it. We don’t get it. We certainly aren’t interested in selling the client on it.”

This view is not a solitary one. Five years on, Andy Clarke made the same assertions to an increased audience, adding the following turning point statement (Lloyd 2005),

Those people still delivering nested table layout, spacer gifs or ignoring accessibility can no longer call themselves web professionals.

This remark denotes a change in stance by the accessibility advocates, as until this point there had been little in the way of direct and open criticism of the people failing to educate themselves in best practices. Most of the prior condemnation had been expressed in comments on discussion sites by interested designers, but this interview response was the strongest, most open and far-reaching attack from a high profile figure. Contributions followed from other evangelists on what Holzschlag (2005) coined as ‘The New Professionalism’, and the argument gained momentum. Johansson (2005) added,

There are so many people working in the web industry that just don’t seem to care about what they do for a living. There are so many people that just do whatever it takes to muddle through or “get the job done”, which is a rather popular phrase used to defend outdated methods.

It is hard to assess the resulting impact of this change of view, but the numbers of accessible sites are growing and it can be safely assumed at least part of this is through the efforts of promoters within the industry such as the Web Standards Project, ‘A-Listers’** and in the UK, the ‘Britpack’††.

In a media webcast for the launch of their 2004 report, Commissioner Michael Burton of the DRC noted (cited in Davies 2004),

The situation about web accessibility [in the UK] is completely unacceptable (…) The web design industry is both fragmented and immature, populated by creative and independent people (…) Web developers need to better understand the needs of disabled people.

This indicates the government’s belief that the blame for substandard sites is at least partially the fault of ‘immature’ web developers, which backs up many of the comments that the industry experts have made recently.

5.3 The Importance of an Awareness of Standards in SMEs in The UK

5.3.1 People with Disabilities

  • Over 11% of the U.K. population has a disability relevant to usage of the Web. ThatOver 11% of the U.K. population has a disability relevant to usage of the Web. That’
  • 3.6% of the UK population have a “sensory” disability. That means “difficulty in seeing” or “difficulty in hearing.” (…) [amounting to] over a quarter of a million people.
  • (…) people with a mobility impairment – 5.7% of the population, or 404,000 people – will be affected by Web accessibility (…)
  • And finally, some people with a learning disability (about 2.1%, or 149,000 people) will be served by Web accessibility.

(Office of National Statistics 2001 quoted in Clark 2005)

Clark highlights statistics that demonstrate a significant number of people within the UK are affected by a disability and need special provisions for accessibility in order to enjoy access a site. This demonstrates although it is a minority group, it is not a marginal one.

5.3.2 Legal Requirements

Up to three years ago the government had not stressed the legal necessity for companies to meet DDA requirements with respect to the internet, and there is no evidence of their efforts to promote standards or accessibility knowledge. In 2006, the legal standpoint is unequivocal. The publishing of the DRC’s report (2004a) and most importantly, the release of the DRC-endorsed PAS 78, means that there is no longer any ambiguity,

Think about how you market and promote your company. Is your information available in a variety of accessible formats? 

Consider the following options:-

  • (…)
  • Ensure that the format of your email is accessible
  • Your company website should meet a standard of accessibility
  • (…)

DRC Disability Toolkit (DRC 2004b)

According to experts, a legal case could be made against any company who doesn’t comply (Robertson 2006).

5.3.3 Effects on Business

A major concern for SMEs encountering accessibility issues is cost. Many businesses were faced with large bills to get their premises in order for compliance with the DDA, and many believe that in a fiscal capacity, the investment in accessibility is often not worthwhile (see figure 5.1) (dismissing the value of moral and social benefits).

Figure 5.1, Attitudes to accessibility

Attitudes to accessibility; 23% - Accessibility is too expensive or a waste of our time. 4% - We actively support accessibility. 27% - We like to think we are accessible, but we won't go out of our way. 15% - Other responses. 27% - Our visitors cope, but we will help if they ask. 4% - We conform to the law for fear of legal reprocussions.

Moss (2004a) makes a strong case that on the internet, accessibility can be financially rewarding for an SME, especially where the size of a company is obscured by the façade that a web site can provide. He provides a number of arguments to be presented to clients,

  1. His Website will be easier to manage.
  2. His Website will be compatible with new browsing technologies.
  3. His Website will appear higher in search engine rankings.
  4. The download time of his Website will be significantly improved.
  5. The usability of his Website will be enhanced.
  6. He'll gain good publicity.
  7. His site won't cause his business to incur legal fees (or bad press).
  8. He'll increase his site's reach.

(ibid)

The most significant point on this list for most clients will be point three, SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). Moving above your competitors in the world’s most popular search engine Google (Nielsen Net Ratings 2006) cannot be guaranteed, however according to Google, using semantic (X)HTML techniques‡‡ can significantly improve ratings (Google 2005), and is an effective way in which a site can almost certainly reap a benefit.

The Cox Review (2005) recognised that the world’s economy is changing, as is the “reality of the threat; indeed, in some ways, it sees it as greater and more urgent than hitherto envisaged.” Cox is referring to the globalisation of world markets, implying that the due to the way business is losing its borders, the UK economy now has to become internationally competitive as SMEs are no longer protected against foreign competition in UK markets. Cox goes on to note,

It is hard to think of any sector that is likely to remain unaffected – there are few quiet backwaters or protected niches in this emerging world. Manufacturing has so far felt the brunt of the new competition but there is no reason to assume that whole swathes of the service industries won’t also be affected.

This means that to remain competitive you need to remain ahead of your competitors both metaphorically and literally (in the Google rankings). Hence it is in the interest of the UK government to help businesses to remain nationally and internationally competitive by supplying them with useful guidance; conversely, it is in the interest of SMEs to remain competitive to help nurture a stable economy to trade within.

5.3.4 Social Maturity

With the nature of business in a capitalist society, social maturity could be argued to be the weakest of all the reasons to provide accessibility. The very concept is a social one, and unless it’s financially beneficial, business will almost invariably dismiss it. On the other hand, the past one hundred years of UK domestic policy has been dominated by social change, and the very fact that the DDA was ever litigated for displays a level of social maturity that was not present even twenty years ago.

The public desire an ever more amenable front to business, reflecting a growing interest in social issues. This means that providing a non-discriminatory website should enhance a company’s reputation. Some companies thrive on their socially acceptable policies, publicising their attempts to distance themselves from the standard perceptions of a ruthless business world. For example, high profile SME Innocent use their social policies to increase their product desirability (see Figure 5.2).

Figure 5.2, Innocent use social projects to increase their product desirability

Screenshot displaying the 'Doing Good Things' webpage from the Innocent website

5.4 The Reasons for Low “Web Accessibility” Awareness in the UK

The survey results for this dissertation displayed a substantial lack of knowledge about ‘website accessibility’, with only 38% of the SMEs claiming they were aware of the term (see figure 4.4).

Following the DRC’s survey, Burton commented that the current situation is “completely unacceptable” (cited in Davies 2004). He continued,

How can web developers acquire the necessary skills? The recommendation is on educators and trainers to include accessibility in their material. Include modules for disability awareness and accessibility. The DRC or the government needs to contact vendors of authoring tools as well as tackling 1 to 7 day courses on website development - the bedrock of training in this field. The DRC does not have the resources or skills to tackle these problems.

This demonstrates that the DRC places blame in the government for failure to currently fund education programmes for designers including “disability awareness and accessibility” (ibid). Clarke (2005b) echoes these sentiments,

I do not believe that it is solely the job of the designer or developer to educate clients, but that governments should spend a portion of their (not inconsiderable) resources (…) on properly researched and informative educational campaigns. (…) We have seen such information campaigns before on all manner of topics from sexual health to drink driving, why not web accessibility?

This indicates that there is a consensus that the low knowledge level is a factor of poor education, and the reason the UK lags behind is inadequate communication of these topics to SMEs due to lack of government initiative.

The DRC claims that businesses have not been properly primed to ask for assistance even if they have heard of accessibility. They propose actions to the government directly,

The Government are advised to support public campaigns to website owners about the needs of disabled people and their duties under the DDA. The government needs to foster professionalism, and there is a desperate need for best practice guidelines. The Government needs to take the initiative on this matter (…)

It is fair to conclude that the DRC and the web developer community seem to be in agreement on this. Awareness is a matter of communication, and it appears to be an unfortunate irony that the world’s most sophisticated communications network is the one place where it fails most.

The other concern is that businesses simply are not aware of any accessibility discussion at all. According to the study for this report, only 73% of businesses were aware of the DDA at all. In a similar study in 2002 the figure was 75% (Stuart et al 2002 cited in Howard 2004), which shows in four years there has been no sign of improvement (see figure 5.3).

Figure 5.3, Awareness of the DDA in 2002 and 2006

Pie Chart: Awareness of the DDA in 2002; 25% are aware Pie Chart: Awareness in 2006; 27% are aware

Another suggestion for why accessibility is relatively unknown is the lack of media attention. Trenton Moss (2004a) pointed out remarked that “there’s only been one recorded instance of any legal action arising from Web accessibility issues in the entire world [§§] . The generated media interest in a legal case (or string of legal cases) against a UK firm, would almost certainly increase the audience and raise awareness. In his survey response, Lawson agrees,

We desperately need a court case here in the UK that will finally and definitively establish that web disability discrimination is as much discrimination as refusing to allow someone in a pub with a wheelchair. We need that precedent to establish that the contractors who make the site are jointly responsible (at least) for knowing the law and ensuring it is kept to.

According to the evidence presented in the previously mention documents and the legal advice already in the public domain, the machinery is already in place for such a test case.

5.5 Concerns about Low Awareness of Accessibility Organisations and
Initiatives

The statistics gathered by this survey of SMEs revealed that 65% of the businesses questioned had never heard of any initiatives set up to promote, measure or guide accessibility policy (W3C, WCAG/WAI/WebXact Toolkit/A, AA & AAA, WaSP, PAS 78, US Section 508). Only 3.8% said they were familiar with any one of the organisations which demonstrates widespread ignorance in this area.

5.5.1 For the Organisations & Initiative Leaders

Web organisations need to promote themselves to increase the impact and credibility of their work. If awareness amongst the designers is high, then the task of widening their footprint is working and there is no reason for these organisations to express concern. If these terms are not being communicated to clients it is possibly due to their technical nature. However, if the terms are not familiar to SMEs because web designers are simply not aware of them, the initiatives are not making enough impact, and this would be considered a concern for the initiative leaders.

5.5.2 For the Businesses

There appears to be no immediate concern for businesses. If a designer ensures the SME has an accessible website that meets the WCAG ‘AA’ standard but the SME simply understands that it meets ‘the legal requirements’, there is no need for the business to be concerned that is has never heard of the organisation that sanctions the standards. Nevertheless, it is beneficial to the business if they can namedrop these terms to make the designer aware that they are familiar of the standards expected.

5.5.3 For the Designers

Any concern this will cause a designer will be in fighting opposition from a client to buy a more expensive but more accessible product. If the client is au fait with web accessibility, this is less of a problem, but namedropping poorly publicised organisations and initiatives cannot help strengthen the web designer’s case to persuade the client otherwise.

A parallel occurs in physical access. If the RNIB said they were to take legal actions on businesses who fail to meet visibility requirements in buildings, organisations are likely to concede and update their access, more so than if a less well known organisation made the same statement.

5.6 Should web designers legally be held responsible for substandard sites?

The responses of the designers in the survey proved that this is a complex problem and they all came to slightly different conclusions. Oxton answers,

An almost impossible question to answer. Define substandard in a purely legal sense. Invalid HTML? Not necessarily a substandard product. Use tables for layout? You can still use tables for layout and be accessible if you know what you are doing.

Lloyd is more willing to commit. He remarks that if a standard has been requested by the SME, or the designer says that they will provide an accessible site, then the web designer should be accountable, although this possibly relates more to trade description laws than quality of access laws.

Lawson resolutely agreed with direct responsibility for designers, illustrating the argument with this example,

Suppose I buy a brand new car, and the next day the police give me a random exhaust emissions test, and it fails. If I went back to the manufacturers and they said, “Well, Mr Lawson, you didn’t specify that it had to emit less than 38 parts per squillion of Lead Cyanide, so bad luck”, I could take them to court and win.

Implicit in my purchase is that I wish to purchase a legal product, and by holding themselves out as a car manufacturer, they imply that they know the laws pertaining to making cars - and adhere to them...

Lawson is therefore making the very important assertion that a non-accessible website can be classed as an illegal product, which makes an impressive impact. It must however be noted, because there is no precedent, this cannot be legally verified.

Lemon answered that ideally he would “like to see all web developers/designers considering web standards and accessibility as part of a professional service they provide” although did not indicate whether this should be a legal requirement. Instead he points out that it is currently the prerogative of the website commissioner to ensure the site meets any standards or requirements.

The result of the SME survey provided a similarly fragmented response (see figure 4.5.7). 35% said the business should be responsible, a slightly higher 38% said that the designer should hold responsibility and the remaining number agree with Lawson that it should be a joint responsibility, providing no cut and dry answer.

It appears that the most desirable approach is a joint responsibility. In the eyes of the law, the business is responsible even if they are not aware, but as it is partially the designer’s role to provide a quality product, it would be sensible to apply some pressure to the designers too. A successful implementation of this might lead to wider change within the industry as it would be another argument to break away from non-compliant design methods.

5.7 Should web design accessibility laws be tightened for new websites in The UK ?

Oxton makes an observation about the way the law can (and has) been used negatively to pressurise for results,

… it annoys me when I hear about web designers making heavy handed use of the DDA to try and frighten clients into choosing their company to build their site. The web is still young and we should be looking for ways to encourage people to use web standards simply because of the advantages they offer to everyone, not by using fear and the threat of The Law as the motivation.

In his response, Oxton does not rubbish the laws, but does indicate that they can be seen as a heavy-handed method of getting businesses to pay more than they were considering, portraying the whole industry in a negative light. His suggestion is that designers must take a more tactful approach to avoid the SMEs becoming alienated by web industry (namely the designers).

Lloyd holds a similar opinion, but proposes a method of splitting those who are eligible, and those who are not, in order to ease pressure on smaller companies,

I’m inclined to say ‘no’ generally. (…) But where do you draw the line? (…) Perhaps the line should be public listed companies and government agencies: “If you are in this category, then your site should satisfy these basic requirements. If you do not, you cannot expect immunity from prosecution in the event of a complaint.”

After evaluating this evidence it is reasonable to say the UK stance is somewhere close to this, although there is nothing in the statutes as unambiguous as the final sentence. Even though there has been a recent elucidation of the details of accessibility (Robertson 2006), it appears that designers are still more concerned about the government explicitly clarifying of the law to SMEs than they are bothered about seeing it tightened.

The pitfall of Lloyd’s solution is that the law would then only affect larger companies and therefore SMEs could evade the necessity to provide access. By looking at both Lloyd’s and Oxton’s solutions the obvious compromise is to use a combination of transparent legislation and positives-based promotion to ease the ideas into the business mindset.

5.8 Are SMEs in The UK willing to accept the cost of bringing their sites up to meet web design standards?

The number of SMEs who replied that they don’t believe that accessibility measures are a worthwhile investment demonstrates that scepticism prevails (see figure 5.1 ). 23% categorically stated that “Accessibility is expensive and/or a waste of time as the small number of our customers affected will either not be bothered or will contact us in another way”. A second group of 27% replied that “We have no need for extra accessibility. Our customers/visitors are able enough to cope, but we will provide support to them if they ask.”  This means that currently, just over half of all SMEs are not prepared to meet the cost of bringing their site up to the mark.

Interestingly, 12% said they would not take any further actions even if accessibility became*** a legal requirement, meaning that a significant minority of businesses would be prepared to break the law to avoid having to update their sites. 12% said they would go so far as to shut their sites down as “it wouldn’t affect our trade”. The vast majority said that under those circumstances, they would ask the advice of designer or a consultant, and a quarter said they would order a redesign immediately.

This means that the answer to the question of whether SMEs are prepared to accept the cost appears to be ‘yes’ on the whole, providing they are made more aware of the existing laws, otherwise there is a fifty-fifty chance of adoption, assuming they are presented with the ‘choice’ by a designer.

Clark (2002: 17-23) makes a convincing argument that accessibility can be beneficial to any business regardless of size, whilst also drilling home the necessity to accede to the law. Noise for change from pro-accessibility groups seems to be growing, and following the recent courtroom defeat of the UK store Target (Powell 2006), it is possible to assume that a similar case in the UK is not too far away. It appears that if businesses are not financially forced into complying, they will have to avoid the law at their own risk.

Lemon contends that despite the apparent lack of acceptance to date, SMEs will soon realise that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages and choose to invest,

Can they afford not to? If you had a shop, wouldn't you want it in a prime position where everyone could find it with easy access to everything in the shop? (...) Unlike real-estate, the Web as a medium doesn't charge a premium for prime positions.

John Oxton also provides an optimistic outlook for the future of web accessibility,

The good news (…) is that many are looking to redesign their sites for perhaps the second or third time, so there is an opportunity for it to just happen, naturally.

** An A-Lister is a high profile web developer, who might contribute to the industry journal ‘A List Apart’, or who is renowned for their expert knowledge in good practice and standards.

†† The Britpack is a group of high profile UK based designers with a vested interest in good practice.

‡‡ Semantic mark-up is designed to provide machine readability so that disabled users can have content read out loud (for example). A side effect is that it increases the ease in which a search engine can index the keywords and phrases in a page through clear context.

§§ Since this there has been one more case, Target in the US were successfully sued in 2006 (Powell 2006)

*** In order not to lead the opinions expressed, data was collected without influencing the respondents understanding of the law. The questionnaire was designed not to imply that accessibility is already a legal requirement.

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