Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

This post has been written for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010.

I recently bought a new phone. It’s great, but like most smartphones it’s taking a bit of time to get completely used to the complex interface.

On the second day of playing with it, I was browsing the web and came across a site which had Captcha. It was a Google product, and I had to complete the Captcha field to continue with what I wanted to do. The problem was, the image that it had come up with was terribly distorted, and I couldn’t make out the letters and numbers. I tried several possibilities, failing every time. Normally I would simply refresh the page to get a new image, but I hadn’t yet learned how to do that on my phone! I tried going back then forwards again, but it just loaded the same image. And crucially, there was no link to an accessible alternative.

It was one of those rare occasions where I had hit an absolute brick wall because of an inaccessible web design feature.

What did I do? Well, I could have fired up my laptop and done it on that. I could have closed the browser and logged back on, or tried again later. I did none of those things – the moment was lost, as was my interest in completing the task. But what if it had been something really important?

The experience reminded me of a few conversations I have had recently about web accessibility, and all of these had a similar theme – the unnecessary need for some users to take the long way round to access information.

In terms of web accessibility, the most serious type of problem is when a user can’t access information at all (for example, when no alt description is given to an image containing important content, such as navigational tabs). But there is also the slightly ‘softer’ issue where information is available, but the user has to work to get to it.

Wheelchair acccess sign

Are you sending your users the long way round? (Photo by incurable_hippie)

Someone recently posted to the Accessify Forum, asking whether it was a good idea to create an alternative accessible version of a website. I recommended that this be avoided, as it creates an unnecessary division between ‘types’ of user which is undesirable and potentially discriminatory. Making it necessary to click on a “Text-only” or “Accessible” version simply introduces another workaround which some users will have to use, and goes against the principles of inclusion and integration that Web Accessibility tries to promote. It reminds me of when you see signs for wheelchair access which take you round the back of a building – some people will have to take the long way round, and may feel quite inferior as a result.

Another example was during the recent televised UK election debates. When the second debate televised by Sky News hit the airwaves, there was immediate outrage across Twitter and the web at the fact that no live captions or BSL interpretation were available. This meant some users had to look elsewhere for the content – something they should not have had to do.

THERE ARE NO #SUBTITLES (why not?) on #leadersdebate it is NOT #accessible for 1 in 7 (70,000) #DEAF people @skynews you #fail!!! pls RT

An angry Tweet from Pesky People

Too much of the web involves these sort of workarounds for some users, and the problem seems to be that some developers think that this is good enough. Going back to the building analogy, there are often very reasonable factors which mean ramp access has to be round the back – for example, to comply with building regulations. However, there are far less reasons why a web site should require someone to take the long way round.

So if you’re a developer, give consideration to how you’re presenting your content and think carefully about whether you’re offering an equal experience for all your users. Forcing someone to take an alternative route or employ workarounds to get to your content, just as with my experience with Google on my new phone, may well mean they give up and go elsewhere.

Photo derived from a work by incurable_hippie used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

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