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David BANES

Director of Operations AbilityNet-UK
davidb@abilitynet.org.uk

     

History

AbilityNet is a charity formed in 1998, the charity grew form the merger of two charities, the Computability centre created by IBM and the Foundation for Communication for the Disabled based in Woking. The charity sets out to champion the needs of people with any disability in all fields of ICT. We operate in the home, the workplace, at schools, colleges and universities – wherever we are needed.

Since formation of the charity the demand for services has grown continuously year upon year thereafter. In 2002 we helped well over 20,000 individual people and numerous organisations and facilitators to find a solution to how to make a computer work for them.

This experience in providing and promoting solutions for individuals – the client solution led s naturally into exploring the applications and latterly the internet technologies that clients wanted to access with their accessible computer.

When we consider the approach adopted in providing Web Accessibility Services it is important to understand the context of the wider services we deliver


Assessment

At the core of our service is the one to one consultation with a client to identify a solution as to how they can best use a computer. Our assessors will spend a full session with the client experimenting with a full range of adaptive technologies and making every use of whatever accessibility features are implemented through the Operating system and core applications.

Training

Once a solution is identified for a client there is a required process of introducing that technology to them. In doing so we have the opportunity to understand the adaptive solution in depth, and moreover the opportunity to discover the limitations of the technology, constrained by poor design of applications and content.

Consultancy

This broad and deep experience has been of great value to employers, colleges and schools. We have been able to examine the infrastructure provided to support adaptive technology and advise on how that may be enhanced. It was this process that first introduced us to the issues related to design of software, content management, Intranets and as our focus moved form employees to customers and service users to the internet and the world wide web.

We have increasingly found that the combination of factors that highlight the need to design for accessibility create a strong business case for doing so. The economic case, the technological case and the legal case are all powerful, but for some the moral case is as powerful an argument. It is important also to note that this ethical case is pervasive and is rooted as firmly in the companies we work with as it is in the public and voluntary sectors.

Advice and Information

All of which is condensed into our Advice and Information service. This service based in IBM Warwick handles the majority of our new enquiries, these can range from queries about the sourcing of particular solutions to a desperate person seeking a way to remain in work or to communicate with others as a progressive condition sets in.

Supply

In a minority of cases we can provide the equipment for the client, our cost includes all the configuration of the machine and installation and training. This model of a one stop shop allows us to explore the technology deeply and become very aware of the challenges faced by users through our support operation.

Matching the solution to the client

In establishing an integrated approach to web accessibility, we believe that it is essential that the client makes full use of the range of technology that is available to facilitate this. In many cases this requires the client not only to be aware of all of the options that are available within a standard browser and out of the box PC but also the range of individualised solutions and adaptations that can overcome the barriers that poor workstation design can create.

These solutions can be divided into a number of areas

Keyboards and mice alternatives

Keyboards and training in keyboard use
Websites need to support those users who operate a computer through the keyboard only. However not all keyboards are identical, and it is important for a user to know the limitations of a particular design of keyboard when being used to navigate the web.

Mice alternatives including Voice recognition
There are also many alternatives to a standard mouse, these are increasingly recommended as part of a solution to avoid the onset of Work Related Upper Limb Disorder or Repetitive Strain Injury. For the designer an awareness that the effort and time taken by a site visitor in using these technologies may be far greater than a standard solution is valuable in considering the number of clicks and links that a user has to get through to arrive at a desired destination.

Screen Readers and Magnification

From additional support to voice only output, there are many who need better access to the written content of websites, our experience with clients allows us to take account of the many practical issues that arise in using a range of sites when the designers assumptions of what you can see at a glance are not supported.

Language support

Supporting those with Language impairments including Dyslexia is an area of accessibility that is often overlooked by Web Access teams. The choice of fonts and colours are one way in which these needs can be supported, but equally the ability to have text read out or interpreted via a thesaurus is valuable. For the designer an understanding of the need to avoid unnecessary jargon, homophones and large blocks of text is necessary to ensure that the core messages are being clearly communicated to all.

For an increasing number of clients the ability to deploy a solution within different countries within the EU and beyond is seen as especially important, the transferability of solution must be taken into account. Similarly the same issue occurs when identifying a solution for a child or young adult which can transfer into adult life, Higher education and the workplace.

These alternatives are especially relevant in the workplace where access to an Intranet or CMS will be limited both by the design of the materials, the workstation set up and the infrastructure deployed to deliver the materials.

Our services in web accessibility build upon this firm pragmatic and practical foundation, and the daily feedback given by our clients on the issues that confront them.

Web Accessibility Services

The key principles that guide our approach are then drawn from our wider experience, as well as auditing to standards expressed by W3C and WAI we are able to add some 40 additional checks which draw upon usability in combination with a technical review.

The process by which we evaluate and audit a site starts by exploring what will operate with standard solutions in their default settings. Advice as to barriers created through poor design at this early stage are flagged up in the comprehensive review. Often at this stage we establish a series of key tasks that the user would expect to complete at the site and we are able to establish those access technologies that will support these operations and those which are effectively barred from the site through the design.

Key tasks are related to the core business of the website, and its inherent purpose. If the site seeks to sell a product or service, our central question is can I do that if I am a user of adaptive or assistive solutions.

This means that if asked it is relatively easy to make a judgement about the value of different sites offering the same service, in getting to this conference my flights were booked with EasyJet, any of my colleagues with a disability could have done the same using their website – incidentally this quality of design made my user experience shorter sharper and more relevant. Unfortunately neither my colleagues nor I would have had the same ease of booking with all of their competitors.

In testing with this variety of technology and focussing on a number of key tasks we begin to delve into a number of accessibility related questions.

Some of the additional questions that we might ask routinely as part of our review include:-

Our client base for these services has been wide, including customers from the Public, Private and Voluntary sector. These services are well integrated with wider services run by organisations such as the EFD who operate an eCheck accreditation.

Future Developments

Over the coming year we will be seeking to expand and enhance our range of services in response to the feedback that we have received from our customers, these include links to accessible templates, advice on other e media, and the ability to offer an accreditations system in conjunction with other UK and European partners.

More immediately, another approach to supporting websites have included the development of a branded help page for companies whereby their users can seek information on how to optimise the website for their own needs. We believe this to be more effective than adjusting the individual website as the settings can then be transferred onto any website written to encourage accessibility.

This success has led us to develop a complete website design service. We have worked hard to produce a range of designs that comply to the highest level of accessibility (AAA) and that can be tailored to individual requirements.

The result is a website that not only looks professional and is easy to use, but which is totally accessible to all visitors.

Conclusion

Ultimately we believe that real accessibility is built from both ends of the network. Through a knowledgeable user with the confidence to create a personal computer system tailored to their own strengths and weaknesses, through public access centres with a range of enhancements to support individual needs to the webmaster and designer with a desire to maximise access for all and hence promote a cause, product or service to the widest possible community. With these pieces in place the power of the network can be fully exploited.

If anyone would like to know more about our approach or to discuss possible options for collaboration our contact details are

David Banes
Director of Operations
AbilityNet
0044 1908 314736
davidb@abilitynet.org.uk

Robin Christopherson
Web Consultancy Manager
AbilityNet
0044 1926 464000
robin@abilitynet.org.uk

Full information on our range of services is also available at our website www.abilitynet.co.uk


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