Apr 2006
Since the law came into force, websites have had to be accessible to all visitors. I did an analysis of the FTSE100 companies in October 2005 and very few were accessible. Some said they were, and a very small number were accessible, but failed to mention it - as a Marketer, I feel you should always inform your customers about the good things you are doing.

Since the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) came into force there have been a number of companies popping up claiming to provide accreditation. For the exorbitant prices they charge, I feel that companies are getting a raw deal, but more of that shortly.

To comply with the DDA a website must be able to be read by all visitors. This means that websites written in Flash are generally inaccessible, as the code merely states that the site contains a flash file. There are ways to make Flash accessible, but I feel that there are also other ways to open the site up, after all, the companies with Flash splash pages as their homepage are generally shooting themselves in the foot with regards Search Engines.

If you have images, and that includes buttons for your navigation, you should tag them. This is using the Alt (or alternative text) tags - a very simple process that I get my students doing from day-one when I teach web design. It can also be a useful way of increasing the mention of certain keywords, again helping with your Search Engine listing.

The use of style sheets (CSS) also improves the readability and accessibility of your website as it strips the page code of such extraneous code as font and colour information, and can also help in controlling the layout, and even the navigation. I recently built a site that uses CSS to provide a pull-down menu navigation system - check it out at www.about-liechtenstein.co.uk.

The main topic of this blog, however, is the wanton abuse of customers by these companies offering certification. Web consultancies are charging customers for an audit, and then pushing their consultancy services onto them for even minor errors or issues. The Royal National Institute for the Blind is also offering accreditation, whilst also trying to encourage case law through legal action, and setting up a consultancy and training business. Finally, the quality assurance insurance has leaped on this bandwagon, offering audits (which I agree, they are good at) for the technicalities of a website (which they have no track record in). A phrase comes to mind here - SNAKE OIL SALESMEN!

So what can you do?

The WAI was set up by the W3C - The World Wide Web Consortium - led by the founder of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. It has a checklist of attributes for certain levels of accessibility, which anyone can follow, and audit their own site. There are tools that will allow you undertake automated audits of your website - tools like Bobby from Watchfire, or Ask Cythnia - which give you a detailed assessment of code or page assets that are inaccessible.

Interpretation is where you may find things problematic. In this case, why not hire consultants to help you interpret and correct the information, rather than pay them to use the same tools to tell you what needs doing? Save some money! They may claim that you are getting a 'recognised, international standard' - rubbish - you can link to the WAI standard if you meet the criteria. That is the only international standard, and it is free. There is NO other international standard - don't let them kid you otherwise.
I wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph Business Club on the subject of Accessibility, which you can get from the Club's archive, or via a site I put together to compile interesting marketing articles (and all my own articles!) - just visit www.professional-marketer.co.uk. In this article I was telling readers that the W-Mark from the Excellence Ireland Quality Assurance company was the best standard. I would like to publicly withdraw this, as I have had dealings with this company and doe not find them trustworthy. I also feel that they have jumped onto this bandwagon, and are not providing a cost-effective service to customers. In the article I also mention other suppliers of 'accreditation' - my previous comments apply to these companies too.

So, my advice is to do yourselves a favour and do your own audits. Get expert help when you have the results of the audit, and be specific about your requirements - this could save you a 5-figure sum!

If you are redesigning, or about to embark on a new website, you should insist that it is built to WAI standards - anything less will mean that your site is being built to illegal specifications. And it should not cost you any more. I recently quoted for a website, and lost the tender. I was double the price of the company that won the tender, but that is because I know the value of my time. The new website, however, was not built to WAI standards, and I was asked to quote to get it to the standard - that would have cost the company the same price as the original build, bringing it up to my quote - retrofitting is not easy! They refused and are operating an illegal website, which for their business, I would say is highly unethical and financially dangerous.

Accessibility is good, right and proper, but you needn't get fleeced when being legal.
Web design made easy
Having spent many years learning how to develop and programme website, I have just been introduced to Rapidweaver - a Mac programme that takes all the pain out of web development. You chose themes for all the pages, chose the types of pages you want to include and hey-presto, you have a website appearing infront of your eyes. Publish it onto your host (or .mac space) and you are online.

I teach a course called Web Design For The Terrified, but I won't tell them about this programme. For one, many people don't have Macs, and secondly, people still need to learn how to do the develoment process (that should keep me in a job).

Web design itself is a dying art, there are many people out there who dabble in it, but trade as professionals. just look at the spelling mistakes, the poor designs and deplorable navigation. You can expect this from amateurs, but not from people taking money from companies and individuals.

Another issue that is close to my heart is the accessibility of websites. The recent law called the Disability Discrimination Act, relates to disabled access to buildings, product and services, and this includes Websites. Most of the FTSE100 companies are way off complying with this law, although many claim that one of their sites is compliant, and therefore claim that this applies to all of them!

In the same way that there are the amateurs providing web design, there are some companies who are claiming to provide 'International Accessibility audits'. The ISO have only recently brought out guidelines, and all these companies providing Accessibility audits are using the WAI standards - freely available on the web. I have set up a site (in development at the moment) called DDA Audit, as I am as capable as the next to audit a website, and my certification is as authoritative as anyone elses. In fact, because I also audit the e-marketing as a whole, I can bring my extensive e-marketing experience to bear on advising companies and website owners.

If you are employing a web designer to build you a site, they should not charge you any extra to build a DDA compatible site - not doing so is ILLEGAL. If they don't understand the legislation, or the techniques, my advise is to find another developer. Contact me if you get stuck, I know a number of very good, professional developers who understand the techniques and issues.