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The Accessibility Challenge

February 2, 2005

We recently completed a large website redevelopment project. The site, when launched, contained nearly 1,000 individual content items. Since launch, that number has grown. We expect it to continue to increase, especially as the departments who took a wait and see attitude start contributing content to the site. If past experience holds true, this site will have close to 5,000 content items within a year or two.

One of the stated goals for the site was accessibilty. Granted, this was not the term used, but as we went through the process of identifying the site’s customers, local senior citizens were mentioned. Because this is a city website, they do not have to comply with Section 508 — however, as many local government agencies choose to do, the city made compliance a goal. Throughout the design process, we kept this in mind, and, because the backend of the site is a content management system, we included “hooks” to ensure things like alt attributes weren’t forgotten.

Okay, fine. Mission accomplished.

Sort of. The day-to-management of the website is handled in a decentralized manner by non-technical staff. The final review before new content is published is done from an an editorial perspective — the webmaster doesn’t know HTML, and the chances of her learning it are slim. When we loaded the original batch of content on behalf of the client, we converted as much as possible to plain HTML. Unfortunately, due to a variety of factors, not everything could be converted, and there are many documents posted as PDF files.

As the person tasked with converting the bulk of the content on the site, I realized that the goal of accessibility faced multiple challenges, all which are part of a bigger challenge:

We did everything we could — from design to tool integration to template development to training — to ensure the goal of an accessible website was met. Now the full burden of maintaining the site is on non-technical staff. This is not an uncommon situation — in our experience, more websites are maintained in this manner than are sites under the control of individuals who live and breathe HTML with all of its nuances. Whenever I read that content owners “should” do this and that to achieve accessibility, I wonder how many people dictating the “shoulds” actually understand the process from the perspective of someone who drew the short end of the straw and must now add updating their department’s area on a website to their daily duties?

When we work with clients, nobody questions the goal of accessibility. Quite the opposite. But businesses and government agencies do not have unlimited resources, and they don’t always have technically-oriented staff. I realize there are many individuals pushing for improved user agents and technology; until someone can copy and paste clean HTML from Word or convert to a well-formatted (even if structurally incorrect) PDF file, websites will be littered with the ghosts of well-intentioned content authors who had to balance the “shoulds” with reality. It probably wouldn’t hurt if actual coding guidelines were evaluated from the perspective of people in the trenches, either.

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