Find out who the audience for accessibility statements is, the main reasons most accessibility statements don't work, and tips for how to get it right.
Jonathan Hassell highlights how guidance in BS 8878 adds to the effectiveness of accessibility statements.
History of accessibility statements and accessibility policy statements
Accessibility statements have been around for years.
While it's likely that some accessibility statements existed on websites before 2006, the first official definition of what a statement should be appeared in PAS 78 Guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites (the fore-runner to BS 8878) in March 2006.
PAS 78 recommended 'a summary of [a website's] accessibility policy should be made available on the website' and called this summary an accessibility policy statement.
The role of an accessibility policy statement was to let the disabled users of a website know the important aspects of the way the site had been created to be accessible, and give details on how they could optimise their website user experience, usually through following links to information on the BBC My Web My Way site.
When the drafting team of BS 8878 and I were considering how BS 8878 should update this advice, we did a lot more thinking about the sorts of statements we'd become used to seeing on websites, and how helpful they were to users.
Other than streamlining the language so that an accessibility policy statement became an accessibility statement, the most crucial aspect of this was…
Who is an accessibility statement for?
The lack of thinking about who accessibility statements are for is where most current statements fall down, big time.
Most statements talk a lot about how committed the organisation that owns the website is about accessibility. They give grand words of intent, backed up by attempts to prove they live up to those words.
The grand words are fine, if a little generic.
The attempts to prove the site's accessibility usually go along the lines of publishing:
- loads of jargon from the accessibility community (WCAG 2.0, WAI-ARIA etc.);
- loads of jargon about accessibility legislation (DDA, Equality Act, ADA etc.)
Statements often read like a combination of a sales piece on how socially responsible the organisation is, a technology manual, and some legal small print.
All of which would be fine if the intended audience for the statement was other web developer, accessibility consultants and lawyers.
But these statements are supposed 'to give accessibility information to disabled people'…
When might disabled people want to read accessibility information?
So, let's think about why disabled people might want that information, and when they might visit a website's accessibility statement…
I'll use an analogy.
Like most people, I have various hats that I wear: I'm a man, a dad, a husband, an accessibility consultant, someone who wears contact lenses, a resident of London, a supporter of Fulham Football Club…
Say, for some obscure legal reason, websites felt they needed to publish links on every page to information on how people who are short-sighted could use them best.
The question is: why would I ever click on that link?
Would I go to the Fulham FC site to look for information on the latest team news, but see the link to 'Short-sighted' and think 'forget that team news, let's check to see what they're saying about contact lenses first'?
That's faintly ridiculous.
A more sensible thing to do would be to get to the team news, and only go to the 'Short-sighted' page if I had a problem reading the team news that I though might be solved if I went to the 'Short-sighted' page.
And what would my reaction be if, when I arrived at that 'Short-sighted' page, I found platitudes about 'how Fulham FC really cares for people with contact lenses' and all the things they say they've done to help me, in jargon I can't understand, and finally found a link to something which could help me, but required me to go to another site and spend 20 minutes or £200 on a solution?
What should be the aim of an accessibility statement?
So, chances are the only reason people will visit a website's accessibility statement is because something on the websites is not working for them.
They'll be annoyed that the site isn't working for them already. And they'll want the accessibility page to get them to a solution to their problem as soon as possible.
If they don't find that solution quickly, they'll either:
- write the site off as useless and go elsewhere (losing the site customers);
- or want to complain, using whatever national law they can get their hands on to back up their case (giving the site's legal and accessibility teams a challenge).
BS 8878's tips on how to write an accessibility statement
With this insight in mind, BS 8878 recommends that accessibility statements:
- use clear, simple language, that the greatest majority of disabled users (including those with learning difficulties) can understand (even if they can't understand the rest of the site)
- include information on how users can customise their experience of the website if they are having difficulties using it — either through installing assistive technologies, using browser or operating system accessibility features, or accessibility tools on the site itself
- include information on any accessibility limitations the site has (as BS 8878 accepts that the realities of site creation deadlines often mean sites regularly need to launch without perfect accessibility for all users), and plans to fix the limitations
- include contact mechanisms for disabled people to use to get help if they still can't find a solution to their difficulties, and suggest that people read WAI's 'Contacting Organisations about Inaccessible Websites' document to make sure their feedback adequately explains the problem they are having
- after this information the statement may include information on how the owners of the website catered for accessibility in its production, but this should avoid technical terms and jargon
- include the date the accessibility statement was last updated (and the statement's accuracy should be reviewed and updated every time a new version of the site is launched)
Good accessibility statement examples
To help you write a best-practice statement, BS 8878 includes an example accessibility statement in its annexes. Other good examples include:
- Hassell Inclusion's accessibility statement
- the accessibility help and accessibility policy published on gov.uk are also along the right lines
Read the Access iQ accessibility statement.
This article is adapted from How to write an effective Accessibility Statement, by Jonathan Hassell from Hassell Inclusion. Professor Jonathan Hassell is a thought leader in inclusion with ten years experience of embedding accessibility within digital production teams and sharing best practice at international conferences.