The Great CSS debate and the accessibility of websites

Published on: 22/09/2010

The Great CSS debate and the accessibility of websites

You may remember a fable called "The Kings Clothes". A story where some clever people convinced a gullible and vain king that their work was so fine that it couldn't be seen. Well the web industry has brought the story bang up to date with W3C compliance.

Now there are a number of drivers to the compliance debate. In no particular order;

  1. Search Engine Accessibility (Google wants it)
  2. Web coding standards and browser compatibility wars (IE vs other browsers)
  3. Ease of re-styling a website (!)
  4. The God-given rights of the W3C (great job guys)
  5. The massive client spend required to re-code existing websites (surely not)
  6. Web developers who can, dissing off those who can't (na na na na na)
  7. Nobody able to stop a roller coaster of nonsense, for fear of looking out of line. (the kings clothes)
  8. ? (?)
  9. Erm., the Disability and Discrimination Act 1995 perhaps?

Okay, so you might have gathered that I don't think the real driver is the one that every body raises as the motive for change. The desire to make websites accessible to the widest possible audience is something that we should definitely work towards. No question. However, does the entire website world have to develop css based websites to achieve this? Well no. In fact W3C compliance has absolutely nothing to do with the DDA. Most people equate the DDA requirements of a website to involve people with poor vision. There is this misconception that W3C compliance (how the HTML that presents the website is written) is necessary for screen / browser readers to operate effectively. WRONG

Check out Mozilla Firefox and the excellent browser reader ClickSpeak. This combination will handle most websites, reading the page text and providing the click control needed to access site features.

There are alternatives, which I confess I haven't tested. However, I have tested three Internet Explorer based browser readers and was shocked at what I found.

To get these readers the User has to pay a fee (in the £100s). This however is not the end of the story, for the User cannot use the tool on websites (such as this one) who are not paying the provider of the reader with an additional licence fee!!! So this is the real accessibility issue. No matter how W3C compliant the site is made, the text reading package will not read the site simply because it isn't registered with the software providers. This is because the screen reader programs check back with the program providers to see if the site has been "approved" before allowing them to be read out!

So exactly WHO is restricting access?