Ignoring website accessibility is not just wrong – it is bad for business

31 Jul 2008

Irish firms are failing to make their websites accessible to those with disabilities.

If someone told you that your shop or business property was so badly designed that 10pc of your customers had great difficulty finding your products or services, would you consider a better layout or just watch them leave in frustration?

Nowadays, your website is just as much a port of call for the average customer as your physical premises. If you have not considered accessibility as part of its design, then you are excluding the 8.3pc of the Irish population with a disability of some kind, be it physical, visual or cognitive.

Simply put, this amounts to €3.3bn in spending power that is out of your reach.

The spending power of the 10 million-plus disabled community in the UK was estimated to have been worth £50bn sterling in 2005.

Having a website that is accessibility compliant is not only about opening up your business to those with disabilities, it can also add value to your business, says Paul Walsh (pictured), founder and CEO of Segala.

Segala helps website owners understand the commercial benefits of adopting accessibility best practices.

One website that uses the services of Segala is O2.com, which was completely re-designed to comply with accessibility guidelines laid out by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), an organisation under the directorship of founder of the web, Tim Berners-Lee.

The benefits are undeniable, says Walsh. When O2 decided to change the colour scheme of part of its site, because it had adhered to W3C standards, this involved changing one simple piece of code in what could otherwise have been an arduous task.

Because many companies are not fully accessibility compliant, Walsh says they tend to shy away completely, fearing an entire tearing down and rebuilding of their website.

“You don’t have to change your entire website overnight. It’s about making ongoing changes, letting the user know you are aware of accessibility and doing something about it.”

The major problem is the misconception surrounding accessibility. Many believe it will be exorbitantly expensive to build this into their site, while others assume it will render their website ugly or leave it with less functionality.

Some businesses are even afraid it will affect revenue by discouraging banner or Flash advertising, and this is simply not the case, says Brendan Spillane, co-founder of Dublin-based accessible design firm Ilikecake.net.

“Irish businesses and government organisations are doing better than they used to.

“With any government tenders placed on the eTenders website, it is very rare to see one that does not specify accessibility and to the correct level, which is more important,” says Spillane.

Vivienne Trulock, co-founder of Ilikecake.net, carried out research on the level of accessibility among Irish websites and tested 152 different websites — which had been tested three years previously — to check their progress.

“There is an improvement in the level of knowledge that guidelines for accessibility exist, but not the same amount of improvement in the actual level of change,” says Spillane.

It is also interesting to note that structuring a website to work with the navigation software used by the visually impaired or blind makes that site easier to be listed and found on Google, Walsh says.

“Somebody once said that Google is the web’s most important blind man. If we make content accessible to people with disabilities, whereby a complete text alternative is made available in the background, then the search engine can read it and rank it accordingly.”

Spillane says his own firm’s website is proof of the pudding because it comes up as No 1 in its category when searched for on Google.

The internet should be the perfect enabler for those with disabilities, says Walsh. “When a blind person enters a supermarket for the first time, they have no way of knowing what kind of chocolate biscuits, for example, are on the shelf.

“But when they enter a website for the first time, there is the opportunity to have this information at their fingertips.”

By Marie Boran

Pictured: Paul Walsh, founder and CEO of Segala