Importance of web accessibility standards in web development
I used to work as a representative in a local council in the UK until a few years ago. It was a very interesting part of my career, and I had the chance to be involved in some really interesting discussions during my mandate there.
As it is the case with most local government bodies, the issues that were discussed were usually of a local character, and important only for our relatively small community. Still, there were some issues that had a deeper impact. In most cases, that had something to do with the rules and regulations enforced by the higher instances. Out of all that I came in touch with, the web accessibility standards in UK were the most interesting.
The very issue of digital world, speaking in global terms, is definitely a very interesting one, and at the very top of the problems connected to it is the web accessibility. These issues are pretty well addressed in legal terms, as there is a whole set of web content accessibility guidelines that should provide all the necessary knowledge for developers to come up with functional websites that are compatible with the WCAG 2.0 standards. Still, in many cases, this is not being respected to the last letter. In fact, a huge majority of sites don’t follow website accessibility guidelines at all.
I was trying to understand the reason why this is happening, and also to understand how come the government is not more involved in trying to enforce these standards in a more aggressive way. In the end, I got a pretty clear picture and I will try to explain the mechanism of this occurrence. But first, it is necessary to say a few words about what these web accessibility guidelines are all about, so you could easily understand which issues they address.
There are 4 groups of web accessibility guidelines, as defined by WCAG 2.0 standards:
Perceivable standards are dealing mostly with the issues of understanding the content by the website users. It predicts various options to provide alternatives for written text, audio, or video content in order to make it available to as many visitors as possible.
Operable standards are dealing with the issues of ways users can use the website and the content on it. These are more technical related standards, but there are some really important and usually disrespected rules in this segment (mostly related to keyboard trapping and flashy images that can cause serious seizures with some people).
Understandable standards are related to the use of language in website content. Respecting these rules is also quite inconsistent, although it is rather easy to do the things in the right way.
Finally, robust standards are focusing on compatibility of the websites related to devices, platforms, and user agents.
Disrespect that is often shown to all groups of standards is actually not too hard to explain. All mistakes and avoidances in relation to WCAG standards come from just two reasons:
• Technical insufficiency
• Economic reasons
IT market has gone global, especially in web development sphere. It means that it is way too easy these days to hire anyone, anywhere on the planet for web development operations. It has its positive sides, as the competition has increased, and that made web development and web design services cheaper, with the option to choose the level of quality you really need.
On the down side, this wide array of possibilities introduced a lot of unqualified developers to enter the market. Simply said, there is a real struggle nowadays finding developers that will do the job properly. It came as a consequence of overexpansion, and filtering the good web development and design agencies from the bad ones is definitely not too simple and requires some time and effort to be invested.
Furthermore, this expansion introduced the developers that are working from different geographies, and in many of those WCAG standards are far from mandatory. In a nutshell, it is safe to say that EU and US based agencies will most probably be proficient enough and well educated on the standards, while any other geography brings considerable risks. Unfortunately, the majority of the offers come from countries outside the mentioned “safe circle”. To make things even worse, many of those companies have realized that there is a customer bias (in this specific case – a reasonable bias), and they made the moves to officially or unofficially place their businesses in the developed markets, while still retaining the human resources in their home countries.
When we add the fact that contemporary web is teeming with various platforms and programming languages, and that this fact draws a lot of possibilities for mismatches between developers and people needing developer services, you will get the clear picture on why is this happening.
As I already mentioned, there are a lot of platforms for creating web content out there (CMS, eCommerce), and not all of them are actually capable to honour all the accessibility standards. With the open source ones it is up to developers to fix the problem, but in many cases these are proprietary platforms, and the user can do nothing but to wait for the vendor to issue a new release that would hypothetically fix the issues.
Finally, there is a language barrier that can cause a lot of problems in the market as it is today. English IS widespread, and a lot of content creators have mastered it properly, but there are many who are simply not proficient enough. Also, if the content is initially meant to be in any other language, there is still a need to provide captions and translations to English. Machine translation is still on a very low level, and finding human translators that will do the job properly is another case similar to finding good developers.
Even if we disregard technological insufficiency, there are still economic reasons that hinder the efforts to develop websites in a proper manner. Simply said – doing everything by the book definitely requires more time, so the web development expenses would be much higher than they are now.
Of course, not many people or companies are too willing to make an extra effort in financial terms if they are not required to do it. Since enforcing WCAG guidelines is not something that is being done aggressively, people simply tend to ignore them and do things as cheap as they can.
The reasons for this behaviour can be found in the very motivation of businesses to create digital presence. The majority of the websites cover corporate/branding, eCommerce, and advertising. Even if we are speaking about blogs, social media websites, or those little fun ones that seem to be created only for amusement, the main motivation behind them all is generating revenue through paid advertising, or collecting data that will help other marketing efforts. These websites are usually targeted to collect data and generate revenue in specific geographies, so respecting all of the web accessibility standards could only hinder these efforts. Additionally, the websites that create most revenue are sticking out, and that is often achieved through the very aggressive graphic layouts, misleading headings, and similar techniques. In short – the vast majority of the websites on the entire internet are pretty much “trash” that has a sole purpose to attract people, generate traffic, and create profit. Revenue and turnover are the only things that matter there, and reaching the small percentage of population that would be missed if accessibility standards are not respected is definitely not their priority. They are created quickly, cheaply, and without any concern given to any kind of standards. Since there are no efficient mechanism to counter these occurrences, there is really little hope that the things are going to change anywhere in the near future.
Why nothing is being done in order to enforce web accessibility standards?
The answer to this question is also two-pronged and includes technical and financial issues.
On the technical side, it is absolutely impossible to enforce them without introducing some kind of censorship. This is something that could have huge consequences on the freedom of speech, and introducing censorship on any web related issue would have the potential to lead to various undesired and potentially dangerous conclusions down the road. So, at this side, it is near to impossible to even think of enforcing web accessibility standards as they are without stepping on some toes, and that has the potential to cause far more damage than it would bring benefits.
On the financial side – the majority of websites are not compatible with the accessibility standards, so going aggressive on the issue and banning/censoring those that are not compatible would have a huge financial impact on several verticals. First of all, the companies providing hosting, web development, web design, and auxiliary services would face a huge drop in orders. It would lead to a significant loss of jobs which is never good for the economy.
Furthermore, the sales made through the online channels would drop as well. Increase in costs of being present online would most probably be more than significant, and that would reflect on the price of products and services being sold.
Finally, the worst of the implications would be the decrease in competitiveness on the market, as the small startup companies would be further disabled to compete in any manner with the well established businesses.
All in all, the financial losses to the entire country’s economy would be huge and measured most probably in billions, so there is little hope that the government bodies will press the issue in a manner that could lead to such consequences.
What can be done and how will the situation develop?
As I already said, there is little to no hope that the implementation of WCAG guidelines will be enforced by law. The changes to respect those standards must solely come from the market demand, and the further increase of quality of services. Simply, the websites that honour those standards will be more competitive, and although it is still not an advantage without a huge margin, the things will start to change eventually.
Also, there is a constant increase in capabilities of the platforms and programming languages and the more advanced features will become more and more available in an easy way as the time passes. Compatibility with user agents when it comes to users with disabilities or special needs is also expected to take a leap in the following years, and the same case will be with the machine translation, as there are already some machine translation engines that work on a higher level than the majority.
It will represent an evolution in web development and that is the only way to treat the issue. Revolutionizing it with enforcing the strict rules is pretty much like every other revolution – a messy ordeal with uncertain end. Evolution on the other hand provides the chance to grow in quality of web presentations in a sustainable manner. In this case, there will be no tectonic moves on the market, and no damage to the economy.
So, the only manner to advance in this segment is step-by-step, and no leaps should be expected. Will this mean that there will be some people who won’t be able to access the majority of the websites for the foreseeable future? Yes! Is it something we should be all proud of? No! But – that is the reality.
Of course, if you are running a serious business that wishes to address each and every user in a proper way, and if you wish to respect the web accessibility standards – we can help you with that! Studioworx has been involved in various projects where respecting those standards was mandatory, and we are more than capable of providing you the web development, web design, and content creation services that will be in full accordance with WCAG 2.0 standards. All you need to do is to contact us via our website, mail, or phone, and we will be happy to consult you on the issue, give recommendations, and actually carry out the development work for you.