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

Literature Review

2.1 Introduction

There is a relative lack of published academic research studies in the field of web standards. Far more has been written and discussed in industry journals, online and in books guiding people on best practice for design, and the majority of information in the literature review comes from these sources.

2.2 Current UK Legislation, Control and Official Reports

The main legal instruments that controls accessibility within UK businesses and organisations are the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) and the corresponding Code of Practice (DRC 2002). The latter is overseen by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), who regularly publishes reports and recommendations for the promotion of a more accessible society, and some of these reports provide a good stock for the people writing the arguments observed below. In April 2004 the DRC published a survey of 1000 UK public websites for conformance to WCAG Accessibility Guidelines, which provides the most recent record of UK website compliance (DRC 2004a).

In March 2006 British Standards released PAS 78 (BSI 2006), a document for businesses commissioning new websites. Reviewed by a UK Intellectual Property and IT lawyer, PAS 78 is “…not a technical standard like WAI, it’s about the process of making and maintaining accessible websites.” (Newson 2006). To illustrate the weight of this document, international legal firm PinsentMasons commented “The DRC’s endorsement of PAS 78 is significant and it could be used in court to illustrate whether a business has complied with the Disability Discrimination Act.” (Robertson 2006).

Accessibility is often judged against two main criteria. Firstly, semantic HTML/XHTML code to any of the W3C Specifications (W3C 1998; W3C 1999; W3C 2000; W3C 2001) and secondly to a specific accessibility standard. In the UK this is the WCAG (W3C 1999b) A, AA and AAA ratings. These are used by the DRC to measure compliance. PAS 78 (BSI 2006: 6.4.2.1) states,

WCAG are the most important accessibility guidelines for web commissioners to be aware of, as they are considered to be the de facto standard for accessible web design.

2.3 The Adoption of Arguments

There are a number of viewpoints considered in the accessibility discussion. Passiveness, unawareness and apathetic stances have to be considered as important factors and are documented further on in this section. The information reviewed below is strictly in relation to professional web designers, businesses and public organisations and not amateur designers or private sites.

2.4 The Pro-Accessibility Arguments

The earliest found, printed record of the argument for access (outside of the standard-making bodies) is an article in the Toronto Globe & Mail from 1995 in which a Canadian accessibility consultant observed that web developers were already failing to adhere to ‘strict’ HTML coding (Clark 1995).

Clark is a now a well known published critic of the level of accessibility in new media and has made clear his views about the adoption of accessibility in the UK (Clark 2003). He has cited eight main reasons why accessibility should be adopted by designers (Clark 2002: 17-23). There have been a number of interpretations of this list, including: articles for self-educating businesses (WAI 2002; Budd 2004); reasons why accessibility adoption rates are so low (Heilmann 2005); and instructions on how to sell accessibility to clients (Moss 2004a). In another of article from 2004, Moss also attempted to dispel four popular myths about the legal aspects of businesses publishing their sites on the internet (2004b).

There are some differences of opinion within the pro-access group. In an interview between two British WaSP ATF members (2005), Ian Lloyd asked for Andy Clarke’s views on designers who do not conform to accessible based design, and his response was that in his opinion, they were now unfit to call themselves professionals. These sentiments echoed throughout the pro-accessibility web developer community and were cited and built on many times by other high profile developers (Holzschlag 2005; Johansson 2005; Koltz 2005) beginning a debate into the most effective way of widening the general awareness of accessibility.

Lawson previously debated the value of exacting mark-up at the expense of real accessibility (Lawson 2004) especially in relation to specific browser limitations, and despite his admittance to the WaSP ATF in 2005, he has confirmed that he still believes that this is a compromise that can be made if necessary (Lawson 2006), despite the exacting nature of the WaSP mission statement (WaSP n.d.).

Clarke also sparked a discussion that split the community; this time regarding whether web standards should be legally enforced. He stated in a weblog post (2005a) that policy should be legislating against discrimination rather than for accessibility. This drew several other published designers into the debate, and parted them down the middle.

A key question opened by this debate was if standards really can be a method of judging access levels, or whether it is something far more elusive and not entirely measurable using laws and checklist methods. Lawson (2005) agreed with Clarke, but the discussion divided the views of co-authors of “CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standards Solutions”, Andy Budd and Simon Collison.

2.5 The Usability Stance

By contrast there is another argument that sidelines accessibility. U.S. Usability guru and expert Dr Jakob Nielsen (Ward 2004; Schofield 2005) is the public face of a school of thought that believes that the benefits of a usable design are far more important than just meeting accessibility requirements. For ten years the usability experts have been making critical observations on the failure of designers to address usability problems (Nielsen 2005a). This is not an argument against accessibility; both groups concede that two come hand in hand ( Clark 2002: 142), however, it is worth observing that Nielsen staunchly believes accessibility is just a stepping stone (Nielsen 2005b).

Conversely, in an interview in 2002 associated with a book launch for “Usability: The Site Speaks For Itself”, editors Molly Holzschlag (current ‘Group Lead’ of WaSP) and Bruce Lawson (a British member of the Accessibility Task Force (ATF)) discussed their view that while usability is critical, that the big hurdle is the acceptance of accessibility (Glashauss n.d.).

2.6 The Apathetic, Unaffected and Unaware

There is another group of designers who do not use standards in their designs. They are subdivided into three categories; those who actively oppose standards, those who are apathetic (for a number of reasons including cost and time to update their skills) and those who are unaware of standards.

There are no figures to confirm the number of web developers meeting DDA required standards for SME clients, however the DRC survey (2004a) indicates that a large proportion of web designers generally are either unawares or indifferent. This maybe because the person legally responsible for a non-compliant website is the commissioner (BSI 2006) although the DRC suggests that the designers are just apathetic.

Even though there was very public drive to promote the physical aspects of the DDA before the compliance deadline in 2004, there are no official government publications specifically on website access before this date. There is little record of any high profile or concerted effort by the government to promote web accessibility knowledge to SMEs, although in 2004/2005 the RNID was subsidised to provide free training for SMEs (RNID 2005). The extent of this scheme is unknown and the literature does not specifically refer to knowledge transfer with respect to website requirements.

2.7 Information on the Opinions and Knowledge of UK SMEs

An exhaustive search failed to yield any empirical data for the level of knowledge about web standards within SMEs. However, a study made four years ago (Stuart et al 2002 cited in Howard 2004) formulated statistics on the general awareness of the DDA amongst SMEs. The only statistics directly related to web standards are the ones provided by the DRC (2004a), which surveyed the level of compliance, not awareness, and it fails to discriminate between smaller businesses and larger enterprises.

2.8 Literature Review Conclusions

The review revealed the following:

Some browsers fail to render page elements to the W3C specifications and a wide catalogue of ad-hoc coding methods (called hacks) have built up to work around the bugs which cause pages to lose aesthetic detail and functionality in different browser software.

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