Take a longer look at accessibility

Accessibility is not about political correctness, but it is about economics. Maybe when we're all older we'll finally get it

It's easy to overlook today's story about two online travel firms agreeing to make their sites easier for blind surfers to navigate. After all, it only affects other people running Web sites that fail to adhere properly to standards, and is just more political correctness, right?

Wrong on both counts.

First of all, it's about the law. Under the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, all UK organisations are required to take "reasonable steps" to ensure their online services are accessible to people with disabilities. On this count, incidentally, the UK doesn't fare that well. A study conducted earlier this year found that 79 percent of the 105 UK Web sites tested failed basic compliance testing, with financial and travel sites doing the worst job. Local government fared better, but 40 percent of these sites also failed to meet accessibility standards.

On the second count, this issue goes way beyond the Internet, and has nothing whatsoever to do with political correctness. In fact it's about economics. Accessibility is about what vendors call assistive technologies, and it is about the language we use to discuss disability, which is a minefield for fast-moving technology companies.

Early Microsoft research conducted into the issue split its customers into two camps: the "able bodied" and the "disabled". But the results of the research were limited by the very language used. Few of us would think of ourselves as disabled, yet we may well have an impairment.

When the current director of Microsoft's Accessible Technology Group, Madelyn Bryant McIntire, came along, she tried to address this issue of language, and hasn't found it an easy task.

According to Microsoft's subsequent research, 22 percent of the workforce was found to have severe impairments, and 38 percent have "mild impairments" -- that is, they could benefit from assistive or accessibility technology.

As the populations of Europe continue to age, many more of us will find ourselves acquiring "mild impairments" -- such as failing sight -- and many more companies will find themselves employing such people. Ensuring that the Web is accessible to all is simply good business. Let's hope the industry figures it out before we're all wearing bifocals.

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