I was pleased my grumpy old man blog post on usability myths really sparked some interest, with most people agreeing, although a few seemed eager to point out that I’d just ‘critiqued’ them rather than ‘demolished’ them. 

I guess I’ll be similarly accused of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story this time.  Still, I’ll take the risk and attempt to knock some accessibility myths on the head.

Myth 1: Accessibility is only about following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

No it’s not. Yes, these guidelines are a very useful benchmark for assessing the accessibility features of a website. Following WCAG 2.0 will make help ensure that content is:

accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity and combinations of these.

But, as you might expect, I like to use the definition of software accessibility contained in ISO 9241-171:2008  Guidance on software accessibility:

usability of a product, service, environment or facility by people with the widest range of capabilities.

So while it is necessary for websites to meet these widely accepted guidelines, they are not sufficient to ensure good usability for disabled and non-disabled users.  Simply applying the WCAG 2.0 success criteria (which are helpfully written as testable statements) will not determine whether users can perform the kinds of tasks they want successfully. 

We find that the best way of checking this is to run usability tests with users who have disabilities.  In fact, this not only provides good data on accessibility, but as we found for BBC Ouch!, also provides compelling usability evidence.

Myth 2: Accessibility stops you using images on the website

No it doesn’t.  Of course, if you put critical content as images, without appropriate text descriptions, then visually impaired users will miss it. But many visually impaired users have some vision and find that images help them navigate around pages. 

Even users with no vision can find that images on the page help them form a mental picture of the layout of the page. The most important point (as my colleague Mickela eloquently pointed out in our World Usability Day podcast on accessible communication) is to check that the website still works with images turned off. 

This is a relatively quick and cheap way of checking that visually impaired users can make sense of your site.  Which brings me on to Myth 3.

Myth 3: It is expensive to make a website accessible.

As you might expect, I disagree again. Of course if you design and code the site without considering accessibility, it might be expensive to have to do lots of redesign and recoding. Although even that might be cheaper than being sued by a disadvantaged user with all the negative publicity that might entail.

However, if accessibility is planned into the website design and development, there is no reason for it to be expensive, and most requirements improve usability for all users, not just those with disabilities.

Myth 4: Deaf users can read the screen so they won’t have problems.

Of course, for many deaf users this may be true. But users who have been deaf from birth, or who became deaf in early childhood often regard sign language as their first language, with spoken language coming second. 

If you ever watch people communicating in sign language, you will find it hard to relate their gestures to what you would say out loud. It is a very rich and powerful language, with its own grammar and rules, and this means that many users of sign language find it hard to follow complex written language on screen. Keeping screen language simple and straightforward benefits most users, including deaf ones.

Myth 5: Disabled users are only a small minority.

This is a more controversial ‘myth’. It is true that registered disabled users are a minority. According a recent Guardian report, 36% of the 9 million disabled people in the UK are regularly online.

However there are a much larger number of users who are not classified as disabled, but who benefit from accessibility features such as being able to:

  • Increase font size.
  • Adjust image contrast.
  • Use text to speech in noisy environments.

We were once asked by a car insurance website manager why he needed to bother with visually impaired users as they would not be driving anyway.  Apart from his legal obligations, we pointed out that some users with visual impairments can still drive, and anyway, they may well wish to buy insurance for others.

Regarding accessibility as an option for a minority is a big mistake.  The Disability Discrimination Act (now replaced by the Equality Act) makes it a legal requirement, but many sites still try to get away with doing as little as possible.  The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which came into force in 2008 made accessible and assistive Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) a legal right.

Inaccessible websites are not just be unusable and annoying, they are breaching people’s human rights.  I think that is something to get grumpy about!