How a web designed for the visually impaired is a better web for everyone
By Jason Webber, Web Archive Engagement Manager, The British Library
This Disability History Month, staff from across the British Library have collaborated on a series of blog posts to highlight stories of disability and disabled people in the Library’s collections. Each week a curator will showcase an item from the collections and present it alongside commentary from a member of the British Library’s Disability Support Network. These selections are a snapshot insight into the Library’s holdings of disability stories, and we invite readers to use these as a starting point to explore the collections further and share your findings with us.
The web, created over 30 years ago, has revolutionised the world of information sharing but it has not always been an ideal space for all users and in particular those who are visually impaired. By regularly capturing copies of websites over time, Web Archives can document changes and see the progress on accessibility.
During the 1990s and early 2000s it was not unusual for websites to use small, fixed type, poor colour contrast, animations, dense text and many other techniques that can make it harder to read or view. For example, this was the first website I helped maintain back in 1999 when I had just started in the Court Service web team. Not too bad for the time, it does illustrate in some ways how web design and accessibility could look like over 20 years ago.
The Court Service (then part of the Lord Chancellor’s Dept) website in 1999, captured by the UK Government Web Archive.
Contrast the 1999 Court Service website with the thoroughly modern and accessible GOV.UK website whose team work extremely hard to make it as easy to view and use as possible.
Whilst far from perfect, the modern web is a much better place now for visually impaired people but how did this change come about?
In 1995, just as the web was gaining in popularity, the landmark ‘Disability Discrimination and Equality Act’ came into force in the UK (Note: this legislation has had many subsequent updates since then). At a similar time the ‘Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)’ were being developed. Also, charities such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) have been huge champions for online accessibility, even offering a badge of approval to compliant sites.
Legislation, guidance and campaigning have all helped to move web designers and website owners into thinking about all their audience and improving standards.
Principles of web accessibility
At a basic level, websites should be available to everyone and with just a few principles in place, this is entirely achievable. Text should be made so that the user can scale the font size, images should have descriptive captions and alternative text. Videos and multimedia should have subtitles or captions. If websites are structured correctly they allow screen readers to ‘speak’ the website to the user. In 2021, all websites should follow these and several other recommendations in order to be compliant. Read the full WCAG guidance for more.
Another example could be RNIB’s own website that has undergone considerable change and improvement over the years. See these archived websites from 2008 and 2021.
A better web for everyone!
Making the web accessible for visually impaired people is something that benefits everyone. Bigger text with more ‘white space’ and high colour contrast on a page makes much easier (and quicker) reading. Many people today with no visual impairment use captions and subtitles on videos they watch, either to keep the volume low (or off) or it just makes things easier to understand.
From the website owners point of view, why would anyone want to discourage people using their website? Reading their news, latest blog or educational resource or if they are a business, buying their products or services.
Making an accessible web is a WIN-WIN for us all and we should be grateful for the hard work of those who got us where we are today and who are still striving for improvements.
Reflection from British Library staff Disability Support Network member
I completely agree with Jason, making websites, or anything in life, accessible for people with impairments and disabilities, does benefit everyone. Very often actions taken to make something accessible for one kind of disability actually benefits many others. For example many of the website guidelines will benefit those with neurodiverse differences as well as visual impairments. Lots more can still be done to make web content accessible. Particularly with a growing increase of information shared via social media as opposed to a website. To make things accessible often just takes some time, not everything has a financial implication. An example being, taking the time to write Alt Text and Image Descriptions.
I often find that design and aesthetics are still a barrier to making things accessible. If the outcome of making something accessible doesn’t fit in with the aesthetics and design branding of an organisation, they often won’t bother making the effort to make it accessible. Making information accessible doesn’t have to compromise on design, people just need to change their perceptions and their approach, and make adaptations.