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Big wins in accessibility?

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 21 Jul 2010, 13:33

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In 2004 a report was published by the Disability Rights Commission (now known as the Equality and Human Rights Commission) that explored the state of website accessibility.  The DRC report, which is also summarised bythe on-law website analysed one thousand different web sites and evaluated their accessibility against the WCAG 1.0 guidelines.  It was concluded that 81% of the sites that were surveyed failed to reach the lowest level of accessibility (level A).

This statistic is surprising because it is such an alarmingly high figure.  This causes me to ask a closely related question: what does not being able to access websites mean?  One answer is that it can mean some people being unable to access goods, services and information.  It may also mean not being able to use tools that can be used to communicate with others.

Another question (and perhaps this is not a 'million dollar' question, but a 'multi-million dollar' question) is: what could we do to reduce this figure?  The DRC report presents a set of very sensible recommendations for different stakeholders: support service providers, assistive technology providers, operating system developers, website developers and owners, and developers of checking tools.

An alternative vision?

I think there is another approach that we could use.  The world-wide-web would not be what it is today without open source software (OSS).  You could even consider OSS to be the web’s backbone.  OSS powers the programming languages used to create open source operating systems (Linux).  These operating systems can play host to open source web servers (Apache), which in turn can offer functionality by through open-source software development frameworks build using open-source programming languages.

Some open source developments are more popular than others.  There may be a whole range of reasons that might contribute to success or popularity.  Usually it amounts to a vigorous development community and the fact that a product happens to solve a precise problem very well.

The 81% figure mentioned earlier relates only to web sites.  Many open source software developments are created especially to make it easier for other developers to build and manage different types of end-user facing web-based applications.

If we take the argument that there are open source software packages that are used to power web sites, and acknowledge the fact that some open source applications are likely to be more popular than others, we could argue that by improving the accessibility of certain web frameworks we might be able to reduce that 81% figure.

Of course, there is the difference between making changes to a software framework to make it more accessible to users, and making the materials that are presented using a framework more accessible.  Rather than tacking these two issues together, let's just thing about choosing software frameworks.

Choosing frameworks to explore

I use the web for loads of things.  I use it to both write and consume blogs.  I also use the web to buy stuff (especially around Christmas time!)  Very occasionally I might poke my head into on-line discussion forums, especially those that discuss programming or software development related topics.  I also browse to news portals (such as the BBC), and find myself on various information exchanges. 

In essence, I use the web for a whole range of different stuff.  If I take each of my personal 'web use cases', I can probably find an open source application that supports each of these tasks.  Let’s begin with the most obvious.  Let’s begin with blogs.

Blogging tools

Here, I have two questions: how accessible are blogging tools (to both read and write entries), and what blogging tools are out there?

I don’t know the answer to the first question, but I suspect that their accessibility could be improved.  On some sites you are presented with a whole range of different adverts and links.  Headings and tagging may be mysterious.  The blog editing tools may present users with a range of confusing icons and popups.  This is a topic ripe for investigation.

But what tools are out there?  A quick exploration of Wikipedia takes you to an article called Weblog software.  Immediately we are overwhelmed with a list of free and open source software.  But which are the most popular?  A quick poke around reveals two popular contenders for accessibility evaluation: Moveable Type and WordPress

A related question is: how many blogs do these systems collectively represent?  WordPress, for example, claims to be used with 'hundreds of thousands of sites' (and seen by tens of millions of people everyday), and reported 3.8 million downloads in 2007.  These are impressive figures.

Content management systems

Blogs are often referred to in the same sentence as a broader category of web software known as content management systems (or CMS for short).  As always, a quick probe around in Wikipedia reveals an interesting page entitled List of Content Management Systems. It appears there are loads of them!

CMS systems are used for different things.  You might use a CMS to create a way to more easily manage a static website that represents the 'store front' of a company or organisation (or brochureware sites, as I believe they might be know).  If used in this way a CMS can make the task of making updates a lot easier: you might not need a web designer to modify HTML code or add new files. Some CMS systems contain integrated blog tools.  As well as representing a store front, there might be a 'product' or 'service blog' to provide information to customers about new developments.

You might also use a CMS as an information portal.  A charity might use a CMS to provide fact sheets or articles on a particular subject.  A CMS may also provide additional functionality such as discussion forums, allowing users to share points of view on particular subjects.

A simple question is: which are the most popular open source content management systems?  This simple question is not easy to answer. It strikes me that you have to be closely involved with the world of content management systems to begin to answer this question effectively.  This said, a couple of systems jump out at me, all of which seem to have funny names.  Three systems that I have directly heard of are: Joomla!, Mambo and Drupal.  Other interesting systems include TangoCMS and PHPNuke

Unfortunately it is difficult to get a clear and unambiguous picture of how many web sites are created by these systems.  You cannot always tell by looking at the code of a website which content management system is has been created by.  This said, some research has been performed to explore other measures of popularity, such as downloads and search engine ranking values.  (Waterandstone Open Source CMS market share report - 5mb PDF)

What is certain, exploring the status of accessibility of one content management system may have a positive impact on wider set of websites.

Shopping

E-commerce isn’t the preserve of on-line megastores like Amazon.  Small specialist shops selling anything from diet pet food through to hi-fi speaker cables have the potential to become global 'clicks-and-mortar' retailers.

Some content management systems can be extended by installing additional 'blocks' to  add e-commerce functionality.  There is also a category of software that could be loosely described as shopping cart software (there is also a Wikipedia shopping software comparison page for the curious).  Further probing uncovers a category entitled Free electronic commerce software.

Following the links to osCommerce website, some interesting claims can be revealed.  It is stated that over fourteen thousand shops using this one platform have been voluntary added to a directory of on-line businesses. 

I also clicked on another shopping site provider: CubeCart. Although not an open source platform, CubeCart claims that it is used by a 'million store owners around the world'.  It is interesting to note that accessibility is not one of its selling points.

Community sites or forums

Content management systems have begun to step on the toes of what might be considered to be an older category of web software: community or on-line discussion forums.  As ever, Wikipedia is useful, offering a comparison page. Whatever your interest, there will be a forum on the web in which you can share opinions and experience with others.  Forums should be accessible too.

Summary

Creating a web site, or a web based application is hard work (in my opinion).  There is so much to think about: information architecture, graphical design, HTML coding, databases, CSS files.  To help you, there are loads of software development frameworks that can help out.  Many of these frameworks are open source, which means you can modify software so it can match your precise needs.

Another great thing about open source software is that if you find a framework that does not generate HTML code that is accessible as it could be, any improvements that you make has the potential to affect a wider user community of both developers and end users.

What is not clear, however, is the precise extent of the accessibility of some of the software frameworks that have been presented here.  Whilst it is true that accessibility is more a matter of changing or correcting programming code, exploring some of these projects in depth may be one way to increase the accessibility and on-line experience for the benefit of all web users.

Acknowlegements

Posting image, licenced under creative commons from chough, from Flickr.

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