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UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities: a preview of why the new BS8878 British Standard for Web Accessibility matters

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Jonathan Hassell | 11:50 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010

Today is the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

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


  • Comment number 1.

    Just get the colours of your message boards sorted out so they are easy in the eye and not predominantly glaring white as they have become. Even people without disabilities find the colours of the "improved" boards hard on the senses - tiring, causing headaches, causing pain behind the eyes.

  • Comment number 2.

    You say
    " 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. "

    I would say you are a resounding failure.

    I would go further, I would say that the recent BBC changes are YERY GOOD example of how to disadvantage users with disabilities.
    (Apparently a user thinks the RNIB agrees the BBC is doing badly see: https://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbarchers/F2693942?thread=7904491&post=103509151#p103506537 )

    This (main blogpost above) is posted by the BBC who used to have a text only option on many messageboards and on important parts of the website including news pages.

    In fact it was far more than a text only option it was designed:
    - as text only so it could be utilised to easily feed into speech generators
    - to allow choice of text size and colour, with choice of contrasting backgrounds

    This was called the BBC betsie parser.
    The Home page and some of the technical details still exist:

    However the BBC removed this without warning from site after site and messageboard after messageboard. The improved messgeboards besides loosing that feature tended to have small text with vast amounts of wasted space in a glaring white, and that was an improvement ?

    The Ouch messageboard retained something similar to the betsie parser, but no-one knows for how long.
    The BBC did issue a blog post about a proposed feature
    but has since said that will not happen.

    So now the BBC has seriously degraded the accessibility features over a large portion of the BBC site and messageboards, yet still tries to spin the idea that it is friendly to persons with disabilities. I do not think your post stands up to scrutiny.

    Would you like to comment on the current state of the "improved" but bug ridden mesageboards, and advise when you are going to restore the sort or accessibility features you have been recently wiping out over vast tracts of BBC online content.

  • Comment number 3.

    Well said John99, just wish I could afford the £100 to read a copy of BS8878

  • Comment number 4.

    "... wish I could afford the £100 to read a copy of BS8878 "

    Unless things have changed it is allowable to read, and possibly even copy parts of standards free of charge. Public & University libraries make them available under certain conditions.

    I know one of my local libraries which is NOT "Listed" will provide copies at a charge, in all probability I would be able to obtain access free, even online at that library if: it were for private research, as a student, or as an accredited journalist ( which I am not).

    "Listed" libraries should be able to help, at no charge see BSI site: https://www.bsieducation.org/Education/resources/library/nengland.shtml

    You may also find some local charitable organisations hold copies of BS8878 and would permit you to read it. Or maybe you could find an accredited journalist, surely this is a newsworthy story.

  • Comment number 5.

    Thanks John99,
    I arrived here after following a link from Sparrow Redbreast and then going to the British Standards site which charges £100 to download the relevant document.
    But I will check the link you gave me.
    Thanks again for a very relevant post.

  • Comment number 6.

    I too entirely support John99. I have only slight visual problems, but find the new messageboards troublesome. WHY can't we just have slightly bigger fontsize, and no while blocks in the background?

    Like it was before.

    As an aside, I find it discraceful these days that the BSI is not reequired by law to make all standards free on the internet.

  • Comment number 7.

    >>BBC's constantly innovating web products give a consistently good user experience for all users

    >>the shift from users being anonymous consumers of web content to being active and recognised publishers and collaborators,

    >>how best to respond to the changing needs of different groups

    I am frankly appalled to read this blog after several weeks of poor new message board designs rolled out accross the BBC.

    That's an admirable list of aims and guidelines you have there, Jonathan. What a pity the recent BBC website changes fail to illustrate adherence to them. If you were to ask the Hosts of the individual message boards, for instance, I think you would find that they have been inundated with complaints about physical, especially visual, problems arising from uncompromising design and about loss of functionality. And most of all about the apparent failure to respond to the catalogued of complaints from users.

    It appears that some extra functionality has been made available to the OUCH board users. How patronising to assume that users with disabilities are interested only in discussions of disabilities. how careless to forget that every single reader from middle age onwards, and many before then, will suffer a gradual loss of visual acuity.

    Yours sincerely, a partner in the internet experience.

  • Comment number 8.

    I just thought you might be interested - this is what you were serving up to Macintosh users as the "Disability Blog" late on the evening of Friday 3rd December: https://www.paranormal.org.uk/mustardland/gallery2.php?g2_itemId=1960

    (I refreshed the page three times before I took that screengrab. It looked fine on my Linux box, on the same internet connection...)

    I have a better resolution copy that I'll email in when I find an address that works. It's now Sunday 5th, and the page looks OK on my Macintosh, so it was a transient problem.

  • Comment number 9.

    Thanks to all those leaving comments on my blog.

    I think it would be fair to say that the accessibility of BBC Online is wider than the accessibility of the BBC message boards.

    I'm sorry that the people who have commented to this blog are experiencing problems with the message board redesigns at the moment, but this does not mean that the BBC does not care for its disabled users. We are regularly thanked by disabled users for the accessibility and usability of many of our sites.

    These problems with the new message boards actually illustrate some of the key points from the new standard, and from my blog; most notably, how difficult it can sometimes be to create websites which are accessible to everyone.

    The unfortunate fact is that most accessibility standards (such as WCAG 2.0 and the BBC's own accessibility standards) only stress the importance of making colour-contrast as high as reasonable. This misses out the sorts of difficulties mentioned in your comments here, where that high contrast is provoking headaches. This is why the Archers team were initially having difficulty understanding how they could follow the standards and yet still manage to cause difficulties for some of their users. I can assure you that this was not their intention.

    Thankfully, the BBC accessibility team have been contacted in the past by people having the same difficulties on other BBC websites.

    As a result, we have created a tool (which will replace Betsie) that people can use to change the colours, font size, and formatting of pages which aren’t giving them a good user-experience. The tool works across the whole of bbc.co.uk, rather than just on the Ouch site, and not just in the limited colour schemes available there. I can assure you that we aim to be neither careless or patronising, but also to make sure our solutions are both fit for purpose for their users and cost effective.

    I hope to be able to annouce the availability of a trial of the tool soon. Until then I am discussing with the message board team any measures they can take to improve the user-experience for people experiencing these difficulties.

    Jonathan Hassell

  • Comment number 10.

    @ Jonathan Hassell

    Thanks for replying.

    The betsie parser did not just work on the Ouch site it worked on many sites including other messageboards such as the Archers, and on BBC news sites.

    Would it not have been better to delay changes that broke the betsie parser until a replacement tool was available ?
    In that time the BBC could have trialled some of the BBC messageboard changes and fixed the bugs.

    If the tool works it will solve the messageboard accessibility issues. Presumably this is the tool first promised back in February 2010 (link in comment #2 above). When is the tool expected to be trailed some time next year presumably ?

    The BBC is not even officially commenting on the bug fixes of the messageboards at present the last blog about that was 13th October,
    although from message board host we learn more improvements are due, but not the detail of the changes.

  • Comment number 11.

    Will the new accessibility tool work when accessing BBC sites on a mobile device, Android etc?

  • Comment number 12.

    'Will the new accessibility tool work when accessing BBC sites on a mobile device, Android etc?'

    That'll be a no then?

  • Comment number 13.

    I’m delighted to announce that a trial of the promised accessibility tool that will allow you to change the way all of the BBC’s over 3 million pages look (including messageboards) has launched, under the name MyDisplay.

    You can find more information on MyDisplay in my blog at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ouch/2010/12/trial_of_bbc_accessibility_too.html.

    Or go to the tool itself at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/mydisplay.

    We hope this will help give our messageboard users more options to solve any difficulties they may have be having with the boards’ redesign.

    We would welcome any feedback on MyDisplay through its feedback form at https://www.bbc.co.uk/accessibility/mydisplay/your_say.shtml

    Oh, and while the tool hasn’t been optimised for mobile yet, it does work well when viewing BBC Online on Android and iPhone already, @Sparrows.

    Jonathan Hassell, MyDisplay owner

  • Comment number 14.

    I've looked, I've tried, it's awful - especially on the messageboards. I didn't even attempt to fill in the Feedback form, because there was so many glitches, I wouldn't know where to start! Possibly with the ATK error message that kept appearing.

    Is the Feedback form actually working, Jonathan? It's just I've heard from someone else who has attempted to us the 'trial', that they keep on getting an error message when trying to submit the Feedback form.



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