Interview – Julie Howell, Royal National Institute of the Blind

Nigel Peck

Julie Howell is the Digital Policy Development Officer for the UK Royal National Institute of the Blind. I interviewed her recently on a number of Web accessibility-related topics.

The UK Disability Discrimination Act

Julie, thanks for your time. First up, what’s going to happen with regards to Web Accessibility in October 2004 when further Disability Discrimination Act legislation comes into force?

The part of the DDA that affects the provision of services via the Web came into effect on 1 October 1999.

It is true that parts of the DDA come into effect in 2004, but these are not the parts that affect services provided via the Web. Nothing changes in 2004.

Has the DDA made a significant difference to the rate at which UK-based Websites are being made accessible?

The DDA has definitely made many companies more aware of Web accessibility. But it would be wrong to equate knowledge with compliance. While awareness is rising, good practice isn’t necessarily increasing at the same rate.

But keep in mind that the Web is still a very new medium for many businesses, and the disability discrimination legislation is also very new. It takes time for companies to digest and implement the requirements. RNIB is working with many agencies to help them make their future designs more accessible. In two years time I would expect the Web to be far more accessible than it is now.

Would you prefer to see the DDA legislation specifically include mention of Websites?

Legislation is never that specific. However, the Disability Rights Commission: Code of Practice to accompany the DDA, published in February 2002, explicitly mentions services provided via the Web as being covered by the Act (an online airline ticketing service is given as an example).

There is no doubt that services offered via the Web qualify as ‘services’ as defined under the Act.

Has there been any news on UK Web accessibility court cases?

RNIB has recently been involved in two such cases, one of which was the subject of county court proceedings, and which settled in July 2003; these are the first court proceedings we’re aware of that related in any way to the provision of a service on the Web.

These cases have now been resolved: both the clients and RNIB are content with the settlements that were reached.

RNIB will continue to use the DDA in particular to issue proceedings on behalf of blind and partially sighted people in court for breaches of the Act where these breaches cannot be resolved without such action.

Currently RNIB is working on potential cases involving Website accessibility on behalf of other blind and partially sighted people under the DDA. We are unable to comment on the details of these potential cases at the moment but may be able to in future.

Large Corporates’ Website Accessibility

What is your experience of large corporate companies making their sites accessible?

Varied. When the dialogue begins, we often find that companies have misunderstood what is meant by accessibility, or have been misled over what is required to make their online services accessible.

There is often an assumption that they have to make their site text only, or that any elements of the site that are currently inaccessible must be removed. Of course, neither is true.

Once RNIB’s Web Accessibility Team have explained the business benefits of making a site more accessible and have suggested a strategy that works for the company concerned (e.g. an incremental approach), we find that companies feel much more positive about the task at hand. After all, accessibility is about extending the reach of your products and services to a larger number of people and should therefore be viewed in a positive light.

If you worked for a large corporate company, how would you sell accessibility to your boss?

  1. Accessibility extends the reach of our service.
  2. Accessibility makes our site inter-operable.
  3. Accessibility is a demonstration of our corporate social responsibility.
  4. If our competitors are accessible and we aren’t, we may be viewed in a bad light and lose custom.
  5. There are over 8m people in the UK with a combined spending power estimated at £45 billion per annum.
  6. Accessible design enhances the user experience for everyone (e.g. the site downloads more quickly, more technologies are supported).
  7. Inaccessible sites may be in breach of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.
  8. RNIB works with companies to highlight best practice through positive press stories and events.
  9. If our Website is inaccessible, we may be excluding potential future employees with disabilities, which is also unlawful.
  10. Accessibility is not about limiting creativity. The very act of working to standards and guidelines that include the maximum audience is a very creative process.

Lastly, Julie, how do the blind and partially sighted users you’ve talked with feel about the Internet?

The blind and partially sighted ‘net users that I have spoken to are overwhelmingly positive about the Internet, and the Web in particular. Many find it liberating to be able to shop without asking a sighted friend to help, or to read the news or a book without assistance from a sighted person. Even the ability to check a train timetable online makes such a huge difference to a blind manager who wants to arrange his own travel to a meeting.

However, many Websites continue to lock blind and partially sighted people out, and I can’t overstate the frustration and disappointment this causes — all for want of good Web design practice.

SitePoint thanks Julie for her time!