UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities: a preview of why the new BS8878 British Standard for Web Accessibility matters
The Day aims to promote a better understanding of disability issues with a focus on the rights of persons with disabilities, and the gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of the political, social, economic and cultural life of their communities.
So it's a good day to write about a step forward in promoting an understanding of disabled people's needs from websites to the owners of those sites.
That step forward is the new web accessibility standard from BSI: BS8878.
BS8878 will be launched on Tuesday December 7th at a free (but sold-out) event in London.
Part of the BBC's job is to contribute where we can to best practice in the UK internet industry. For that reason, as the BBC's Head of Usability &Accessibility, I chaired the committee who created the standard, and acted as its lead author.
I thought it would be a useful here to give a preview of what the standard is, and how it may help.
I've worked in the field of accessibility for almost 10 years now, working to ensure that the BBC's constantly innovating web products give a consistently good user experience for all users, regardless of their abilities or disabilities.
In these 10 years my accessibility colleagues at the BBC and I have tracked four key aspects of web accessibility:
• the changing drivers and motivations behind web accessibility - the ethical, legal and regulatory, and (for those aspects of the BBC which are commercial) commercial reasons why web accessibility is important
• the changing nature of the web itself - from simple informational text & image websites, through increasing amounts of interactivity and multimedia (including the specific opportunities and challenges of video-on-demand, web-based apps and games), through the shift from users being anonymous consumers of web content to being active and recognised publishers and collaborators, and through the increasing diversification of the web onto a multiplicity of devices such as mobile phones, tablets and connected TVs and set-top boxes
• the changing understanding of how best to respond to the changing needs of different groups of disabled and older people in their use of the web - from desk research on these needs, through the growing importance of testing products with real disabled users, through to recognising the importance of canvassing disabled and older people's views in earlier stages of web production
• the changing organisational structure and roles in web production teams - from an initial emphasis on accessibility of technology, through to recognising the key importance of ensuring user-experience designers and usability specialists understand accessibility, to the current focus on the web product manager as the key player in making the strategic decisions which most strongly influence the accessibility of a product
While web accessibility has never been simple, the demands it now puts on every member of a web production team can sometimes feel overwhelming. The decisions that they make every day may affect whether or not the products they work on will include or exclude disabled and elderly people.
Internationally recognised web standards such as WCAG 2.0 and BS ISO/IEC 24751 are immensely helpful in advising these team members on how to make decisions on what they are creating. User-centred design standards such as BS EN ISO 9241-210 have also provided design teams with standard processes for how to engage users within their design processes.
However, many web product managers have been missing best practice advice on how to ensure their teams are making informed, justifiable decisions on accessibility at each stage of product development. And organisations have been missing best practice advice on how to embed such behaviour within their business as usual practices.
BS8878 provides just such advice. Building on the previous PAS-78 guidelines, which it replaces, it is based on the experience of many accessibility experts from different parts of the UK web industry and disability organisations on its drafting committee IST/45.
While it is a British Standard, it has also been reviewed by over 100 global accessibility experts to make sure it harmonises with international and other countries' national standards.
We've also tried to ensure BS8878 reflects the reality of current web production and the directions it is likely to go in, in the future. So it includes the best the drafting committee could currently say about:
• inclusive design and personalisation - it provides advice on the relationship between inclusive design and user-personalised approaches to web accessibility, including when to consider providing additional accessibility provisions
• accessibility across devices - it provides advice on how to find information on making web product on new platforms such as mobile apps and internet TV (such as YouView) accessible
• accessibility under new legislation - it provides information on how the recent Equality Act 2010 impacts on web accessibility
• accessibility in web product procurement - it recognises that many organisations contract out their web products to external suppliers to ensure they produce an accessibility product
The BBC has been using much of the best practice in BS8878 for a while now, and we will soon be training our product managers in web product accessibility using BS8878 as our guide.
By training BBC product managers in this practice, our aim is to ensure that all BBC web products are able to provide a consistently good user experience for all our audiences.
By contributing our experience to the standard and making it publicly available, we hope that product managers of other websites, both in the UK and beyond, now have a resource which will help them do the same.
Jonathan Hassell is Head of Usability and Accessibility, BBC Future Media & Technology