There was an interesting piece on the BBC's In Touch programme this week talking about Local Authority web sites getting worse, not better, for blind people to use. Julie Howell, who is on a British Standards Institute working party developing standards for accessible site development, commented:
'I think it is very important to make a distinction between designing a website so a blind person's screen-reader can reach the contents but also the ability of a disabled person to visit a site, find the information they're looking for and complete a task at the same time, the same convenience, the same cost as somebody who's not disabled'
In many ways I couldn't agree with her more. We have tested many local authority sites with able bodied users, blind users and users with other disabilities. And the sad truth is that most sites are not very good for any of these users. In our tests, able body user goal success rates tend to be at about the 50-60% rate. However, disabled user goal success rates are not that much worse.
If a site can cope reasonably well with the disabled user's access technology (not all can), then the problems disabled users face are very similar to the problems faced by able bodied users: things like poor information architecture, poor page layouts, too many links on a page, ineffective searches, and far too many words, words, words! These are usability issues that make the sites bad for everyone!
What the disabled users do is throw a really strong light on just how bad these usability issues are. If you are a blind user and arriving on a web page and Jaws (a screen reader) has just intoned 'This page has 142 links' (check out the home page of Birmingham City Council!) your heart sinks. But the able bodied person has the same problem; it may be quicker for them to scan the links but there are still too many of them. The blind user is forced to listen to the vast amounts of irrelevant words that fill so many Local Authority web sites. The able bodied user can scan over these but it still makes it harder to find what you want. Pages like this need simplifying to make it usable for all users.
A lot of focus is put on making Local Authority sites accessible to disabled people - and so there should be. But there is still plenty of work to be done to make them accessible to able bodied people as well! I think Julie's bench mark of performance for disabled users is wrong. They shouldn't just be aiming to make them as easy to use as for somebody who's not disabled. We should be aiming higher than that. They should be making them easy for everyone to use.