The term accessibility has quite specific connotations in the internet world. It describes the capability of your site to support users with disabilities:
- colour blindness
- sight loss (up to and including complete blindness)
- hearing loss (up to and including deafness)
- reduced motor skills, etc.
Additionally the disability to be considered may not need to be one that is ‘part’ of the user but could be one imposed on the user by circumstances. For example accessing your site via a mobile device, or in a bright environment.
As is the way of the web, a series of guidelines have been developed (see http://www.w3.org/WAI/ for details) that provide tangible steps a site designer can take to address accessibility issues. These are prioritised as 1,2,3 depending on to what extent your site is to meet accessibility needs. From the guidelines:
- A Web content developer must satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it impossible to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint is a basic requirement for some groups to be able to use Web documents.
- A Web content developer should satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it difficult to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint will remove significant barriers to accessing Web documents.
- A Web content developer may address this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it somewhat difficult to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint will improve access to Web documents.
A site that meets all priority 1 requirements is given a conformance level of A, priority 2 = AA, priority 3 = AAA. You’ll see some sites reporting this conformance level.
What guidelines do you need to meet?
Only government sites, or government sanctioned/supported sites may have mandated conformance requirements. This is particularly the case in the US where federal laws determine the levels of accessibility to be supported.
For the rest of us the choice is private. Grade A (meeting all level 1 items) can be considered the de-facto standard for any site, irrespective of audience or content. It includes such straightforward requirements as providing ALT descriptions for all images (so text readers can describe them) and generally using HTML (and particularly CSS) correctly so different presentations can be created easily.
There is considerable work involved in conforming with the higher accessibility grades, particularly if reworking an existing site or content. We may therefore choose only to go those levels if our particular audience requires it, or if particular elements in our site require it (eg online policies for disabled access would attract more users with accessibility issues and thus warrant higher conformance levels).
The first step in considering accessibility is reviewing the guidelines and conducting a code review (and/or developing a coding standard depending on project status) which encompasses the core elements.
There are several online tools or services available to allow published sites to be tested easily (and regularly – important if content is changing). The UK’s Royal Institute for the Blind maintains a comprehensive list of such testing services. One of the most famous/useful testing sites was Bobby. Unfortunately this appears unavailable at present.
Accessibility and SharePoint
SharePoint can be configured/developed to provide compliance with several accessibility guidelines. And for sites requiring a higher level of conformance there is a downloadable Accessibility Kit for Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. This Sharepoint team post on accessibility explains approaches using both standard SharePoint and the accessibility kit.
As any other core business system, an intranet needs to comply with the firm’s directives for supporting staff with disabilities. The W3C guidelines provide a clear and comprehensive method for assessing, ensuring and displaying that support.