Accessibility group Segala’s recently-launched partner programme has been adopted by a number of agencies in recent weeks, which can now award ‘trustmarks’ to accessible websites.

The idea of trustmarks is a simple enough. If your website is accessible you can display a trustmark. If it fails in some way users can report the website via the trustmark.

Trustmarks should help raise accessibility standards, and Segala, in the absence of any industry body, has taken it upon itself to offer a trustmark and certification scheme.

The partner programme launched by the company is a way of extending this to other accessibility, usability and digital agencies. The agencies in turn can provide trustmarks for their clients. 

There are a number of issues related to accessibility. As I see it, these are as follows:

1. Lack of technical standards.
While there are recommended guidelines issued by the W3C these can often be interpreted in any number of ways. Stephen Malkmus once sang: “There are forty different shades of black”. If he’d said ‘grey’ I’d have assumed he was referring to accessibility guidelines…

2. Lack of legal precedent.
I know that companies in the UK have been prosecuted but since there was no naming (and thus shaming) involved website owners aren’t exactly suffering from sleepless nights. Brushing this sort of thing under the carpet has to some degree neutered the threat of prosecution. A silent fine is exactly that. No real harm done.

3. Lack of understanding about the business case #1.
There really is a significant business case, when it comes to investing in an accessible website. Tesco, which famously launched an accessible ‘sister’ site called Tesco Access back in 2001, recouped its investment in next to no time. It went on to generate tens of millions of pounds of revenue through Tesco Access.

4. Lack of understanding about the business case #2.

If search engines are important to you then here’s a word to the wise: an accessible website is a site that’s accessible to all, including the disabled, and also – stakeholders – Googlebot. Think about it. Think about Flash websites, which Googlebot struggles to index. Flash sites as a rule are inaccessible.

This last point, about search engines, is particularly valid, since we believe that accessibility will become increasingly important to search rankings in the future. Trustmarks have been identified as one possible way in which a search engine can determine that a site meets certain standards.

So can trustmarks work? Are they infallible?

Segala’s scheme uses a combination of automation and human verification, to ensure that websites are accessible. Nine different automated tools are used in the Segala process, and human verfication checks a minimum of 15 key accessibility factors.

The problems of a purely automated approach are well-documented, but even the input of humans (for example, to determine whether ALT tags are valid descriptions) has been an issue in some quarters.

Since accessibility is largely about catering to people with physical disadvantages, the likes of the RNIB believe that people suffering from disabilities need to be actively involved in determining whether or not a website is actually accessible, rather than one that just ticks all the right boxes.

Prior to leaving the RNIB last month, digital policy development manager Julie Howell talked to us about this new scheme.

“RNIB welcomes any initiative that improves the lives of blind and partially sighted people. It is well documented that disabled people are missing out on the benefits of the internet revolution due to the way that some websites have been designed.

“However, RNIB has grave concerns about any certification scheme that appears to suggest that accessibility can be achieved without direct involvement of disabled people.”

Research published in 2004 by the Disability Rights Commission showed that usability testing involving disabled people is crucial to developing an accessible, usable website.  

That guidance claimed that automated testing fails to uncover 45% of the problems experience by disabled people.

Yet what we don’t know is whether non-disabled people can help test a site to spot all of the remaining problems, or whether you actually need to suffer from a disability to uncover these issues. The RNIB maintains that “disabled people should be involved in usability testing at every stage of the design lifecycle”.

However, a blind man won’t be able to help determine whether an ALT tag is accurately labelled, for example, so you will need help from the non-disabled too.

To sum up: automated testing will uncover 55% of the issues, then you can recruit human testers (disabled and non-disabled are needed, ideally) to aim towards a 100% accessible website.

So where are we at, in 2006, with regards to accessibility adoption?

The truth is, it is hard to say, but it doesn’t look too good. A survey published by Nomensa showed many major UK retailers have yet to meet minimum accessibility standards on their sites (Nomensa used the W3C guidelines as the basis for its survey).

The IMRG’s James Roper reacted to the survey by telling the BBC that etailers were taking their “accessibility responsibilities very seriously” but said that the current requirements were “both premature and overambitious”.

Perhaps this trustmark scheme is needed to increase the amount of accessible websites out there? But can Segala wear two hats?

“There is a case to be said for a company like Segala to become the standards certification authority,” said Segala’s Andrew Gerrard, “but at the moment we’re independent. We’re a commercial organisation.”

Nevertheless, Segala has already signed up a number of agencies as partners for the trustmark scheme, including the likes of Modem Media, Corporate Edge, Suburb, Steel, Isle Interactive and User Vision. It looks as if these agencies will help provide a shot in the arm to accessibility evangelists.

So rather than the threat of lawsuits forcing website owners to take action, it could be that accessibility is pushed forward by industry cooperation, for the greater good.