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How to commission an accessible website

The lowdown on PAS 78

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The British Standards Institution published new guidance yesterday for those who commission or maintain websites, to ensure that any site they make or maintain is user-friendly for disabled people. It could help with legal compliance.

PAS 78: Guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites is the result of a year's collaboration among the DRC, RNIB, BBC, Tesco, IBM, the W3C and many others.

Following the guidance could help any organisation to demonstrate compliance with the UK's Disability Discrimination Act, which requires websites to be accessible and usable for disabled people.

The need for PAS 78

The 56-page document, available for £30, sets out the steps that an organisation should follow to ensure that any new web development accommodates the widest possible audience. It assists with the formation of an accessibility policy and the procurement of developers. It stresses the importance of user testing and maintenance of accessibility levels.

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) approached BSI last year, following its own accessibility review of 1,000 UK websites which found 81 per cent of sites failing on automated tests to reach even a minimum standard. Its report on that guidance identified a need for best practice guidance for accessible website development and ongoing maintenance.

DRC Commissioner Michael Burton explained the problem at yesterday's launch event in London. "Website commissioners saw [accessibility] as a technical issue for developers," he said, "but developers had an uninformed tick-box approach to the guidelines. So we established an accountability framework."

The guidelines to which he refers are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), drawn up by the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative. WCAG 1.0, published in 1999, defined accessibility in terms of Levels A, AA and AAA. It remains the benchmark for website accessibility. But the DRC saw a need for something else, something that boardrooms could understand.

Burton approached BSI, which recommended a Publicly Available Specification. A PAS is not a full British Standard but it is developed using a similar process. It can be introduced more quickly because it doesn't require full consensus among experts. The end result is guidance, not a standard, and it is subject to review in less than two years. But a PAS can become a standard over time, depending on how it is accepted.

The authors

Julie Howell, the Royal National Institute of the Blind's Digital Policy Development Manager, was commissioned by the BSI as the Technical Writer for the PAS Project. Howell wrote the first draft and submitted that to a Steering Group – with representatives from the DRC, AbilityNet, the BBC, the Cabinet Office, IBM, Tesco.com, University College London and the Usability Professionals’ Association. In addition, more than 120 representatives from across the new media, digital and related industries were invited to join a Review Panel to comment on the draft. More than 900 comments were received, running to 188 pages.

Howell, who has been with the RNIB for 12 years, said she became involved with PAS 78 because it presented an opportunity to improve the lives of disabled people. "Commissioners have to step up to their duty," she said.

She was keen to stress that PAS 78 is not in conflict with the WAI guidelines which are under the directorship of Judy Brewer. "The WAI was involved from the earliest stage," she said. Addressing an audience of experts in the field yesterday she added, "I hope it contains very little that's new for you."

Accessibility policies

Giles Colborne, president of the UK Chapter of the Usability Professionals' Association, said the most important part of PAS 78, in his view, is its call for an accessibility policy within an organisation. He described the policy as "a roadmap to making and keeping a site accessible."

PAS 78 explains that the policy should set accessibility targets and should be referenced in tender and contract documents. Colborne suggests that it might be anything from one to 10 pages in length. A summary should appear on the website itself.

PAS 78 says the policy should reference the W3C guidelines and the specifications that the website upholds. It should include "a description of the disabled users to be consulted during the development of the website" and an explanation of the core tasks that users should be able to achieve on the site – e.g. buy a book – and the criteria for determining success.

Where an area or element of the website is unlikely to be accessible to people with particular impairments, an explanation should be provided of any repairs to be made and the timescale; how disabled people can find alternative access to the information; or why it is considered reasonable for the area to remain inaccessible.

Full contact details should also be made available as part of the policy. The website summary should also provide contact details for requesting further information about the accessibility policy and provision for users to lodge complaints or suggestions with the website commissioner.

Sites should be usable and accessible on "a reasonable range" of web browsers and operating systems, it says.

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Next page: Level A, AA or AAA?

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