How to write an effective Accessibility Statement

Today is the first Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). As described on the Global Accessibility Awareness Day site:

Global Accessibility Awareness Day is a community-driven effort whose goal is to dedicate one day to raising the profile of and introducing the topic of digital (web, software, mobile app/device etc.) accessibility and people with different disabilities to the broadest audience possible.

I’ve already done quite a bit via this site and blog to raise the profile of accessibility globally, especially through my popular Accessibility Myths 2011 blogs.

Today, I’m going to do my bit for GAAD by blogging on one of the subjects people regularly ask me about – accessibility statements – and highlight how guidance in BS 8878 adds to their effectiveness.

History of accessibility statements and accessibility policy statements

Accessibility statements have been around for years.

While it’s likely that some accessibility statements existed on websites before 2006, the first official definition of what a statement should be appeared in PAS 78 Guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites (the fore-runner to BS 8878) in March 2006.

PAS 78 recommended ‘a summary of [a website's] accessibility policy should be made available on the website’ and called this summary an accessibility policy statement.

The role of an accessibility policy statement was to let the disabled users of a website know the important aspects of the way the site had been created to be accessible, and give details on how they could optimise their website user experience, usually through following links to information on the BBC My Web My Way site.

When the drafting team of BS 8878 and I were considering how BS 8878 should update this advice, we did a lot more thinking about the sorts of statements we’d become used to seeing on websites, and how helpful they were to users.

Other than streamlining the language so that an accessibility policy statement became an accessibility statement, the most crucial aspect of this was…

Who is an accessibility statement for?

The lack of thinking about who accessibility statements are for is where most current statements fall down, big time.

Most statements talk a lot about how committed the organisation that owns the website is about accessibility. They give grand words of intent, backed up by attempts to prove they live up to those words.

The grand words are fine, if a little generic.

The attempts to prove the site’s accessibility usually go along the lines of publishing:

  • loads of jargon from the web development community (HTML 5, CSS 3, JavaScript etc.);
  • loads of jargon from the accessibility community (WCAG 2.0, WAI-ARIA etc.);
  • and loads of jargon about accessibility legislation (DDA, Equality Act, ADA etc.)

Statements often read like a combination of a sales piece on how socially responsible the organisation is, a technology manual, and some legal small print.

All of which would be fine if the intended audience for the statement was other web developer, accessibility consultants and lawyers.

But these statements are supposed ‘to give accessibility information to disabled people’…

When might disabled people want to read accessibility information?

So, let’s think about why disabled people might want that information, and when they might visit a website’s accessibility statement…

I’ll use an analogy.

Like most people, I have various hats that I wear: I’m a man, a dad, a husband, an accessibility consultant, someone who wears contact-lenses, a resident of London, a supporter of Fulham Football Club…

Say, for some obscure legal reason, websites felt they needed to publish links on every page to information on how people who are short-sighted could use them best.

The question is: why would I ever click on that link?

Would I go to the Fulham FC site to look for information on the latest team news, but see the link to ‘Short-sighted’ and think ‘forget that team news, let’s check to see what they’re saying about contact-lenses first’?

That’s faintly ridiculous.

A more sensible thing to do would be to get to the team news, and only go to the ‘Short-sighted’ page if I had a problem reading the team news that I though might be solved if I went to the ‘Short-sighted’ page.

And what would my reaction be if, when I arrived at that ‘Short-sighted’ page, I found platitudes about ‘how Fulham FC really cares for people with contact-lenses’ and all the things they say they’ve done to help me, in jargon I can’t understand, and finally found a link to something which could help me, but required me to go to another site and spend 20 minutes or £200 on a solution?

What should be the aim of an accessibility statement?

So, chances are the only reason people will visit a website’s accessibility statement is because something on the websites is not working for them.

They’ll be annoyed that the site isn’t working for them already. And they’ll want the accessibility page to get them to a solution to their problem as soon as possible.

If they don’t find that solution quickly, they’ll either:

  • write the site off as useless and go elsewhere (losing the site custom);
  • or want to complain, using whatever national law they can get their hands on to back up their case (giving the site’s legal and accessibility teams a challenge).

BS 8878′s tips on how to write an accessibility statement

With this insight in mind, BS 8878 recommends that accessibility statements:

  • use clear, simple language, that the greatest majority of disabled users (including those with learning difficulties) can understand (even if they can’t understand the rest of the site)
  • include information on how users can customise their experience of the website if they are having difficulties using it – either through installing assistive technologies, using browser or operating system accessibility features, or accessibility tools on the site itself
  • include information on any accessibility limitations the site has (as BS 8878 accepts that the realities of site creation deadlines often mean sites regularly need to launch without perfect accessibility for all users), and plans to fix the limitations
  • include contact mechanisms for disabled people to use to get help if they still can’t find a solution to their difficulties, and suggest that people read WAI’s ‘Contacting Organisations about Inaccessible Websites’ document to make sure their feedback adequately explains the problem they are having
  • after this information the statement may include information on how the owners of the website catered for accessibility in its production, but this should avoid technical terms and jargon
  • include the date the accessibility statement was last updated (and the statement’s accuracy should be reviewed and updated every time a new version of the site is launched)

Good accessibility statement examples

To help you write a best-practice statement, BS 8878 includes an example accessibility statement in its annexes. Other good examples include:

If you need help in writing your website’s accessibility statement, please contact us and we’ll be glad to help you.

What do you think?

I’d be really interested for any disabled or elderly people to let me know what they think about the advice in this blog, and examples of accessibility statements you’ve found useful or not – please leave a comment if you have time.

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11 Comments to “ How to write an effective Accessibility Statement ”

  1. kmekh says: Reply

    Good post. Thanks for the info :)

  2. suzette says: Reply

    I looked at accessibiity policy statements as part of a benchmark study of 100 websites which declared themselves to be accessible.
    Passing all WCAG 2.0 at level A was rare, but you could see that some websites were making a real effort.
    I would suggest that if you have gone the extra mile to make a website accessible it is worth mentioning it in the accessibility policy eg if you consulted with user groups, ran user trials, or consulted with a leading web accessibility organisation.
    Asking people to report problems is good – especially as some problems creep in at a later update, but why not ask for positive feedback too?

    • hassellinclusion says: Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Suzette.

      I agree statements should include information on how organisations have gone that extra mile – I mention that in the blog:

      after this information the statement may include information on how the owners of the website catered for accessibility in its production”

      Tim’s comment on how he uses this information to decide whether he wants to conduct business with an organization makes it worth site owners including this information.

      However, I’d suggest that when adding this information:

      • check it’s actually correct – in the USA, many organisations selling online tools and products to the government create a VPAT to contain this sort of information, but often you can’t rely on it to be true
      • ensure the statement doesn’t just say the site ‘complies with WCAG AA’ – while WCAG 2.0 AA is a good set of guidelines, it’s so much the ‘right thing to say’ that if I see it in an accessibility statement without any info on user-testing it makes me wonder if the organisation just cut and pasted it from someone else’s statement without really checking
      • so, yes, I agree that noting consultation with user groups and web accessibility organisations, or user-testing/trials is always a good thing to include if the site owner has done this

      From my experience, getting positive feedback from your audience is usually tricky – you often need to incentivise people to bother. But it’s value to the website owner (“someone actually has benefitted from all that work we did!”) can be very useful in motivating further investment in accessibility. So, yes, asking for positive feedback is always useful.

  3. Andrew Arch says: Reply

    Thanks Jonathan, very useful advise from BS 8878.

    In addition, as part of including contact mechanisms, people preparing accessibility statements might consider the material from WAI on “Contacting Organizations about Inaccessible Websites” – http://www.w3.org/WAI/users/inaccessible – to help them get more useful feedback.

    • hassellinclusion says: Reply

      Absolutely, Andrew. WAI’s fabulous ‘Contacting Organizations about Inaccessible Websites’ page is already part of BS 8878′s advice, and you can see it referenced in my site’s accessibility policy.

      I left it out of the blog, for purposes of brevity, but I’ll put it back in.

      From my own experience of handling user feedback on the accessibility of http://www.bbc.co.uk, providing guidance to help users know what sort of information to include in their accessibility feedback is crucial for that feedback to be effective. If I had a pound for every occasion when we received terse messages along the lines of ‘Your site is not accessible. You have 40 days to comply’… The long train of emails needed to get to the bottom of the problem required knowing: which of the over 3 million pages that bbc.co.uk is comprised of was causing the problem; what the problem actually was; what disability (if any) the user had; what assistive technologies, browsers and OS they were using. On a few occasions we spent ages getting to grips with the user’s problem, only to find it had nothing to do with our site, but was caused by a pop-up blocker the user didn’t even know they had installed…

      Being able to get all the information the website owner needs to understand and solve the user’s problem is a win-win for both user and site owner.

  4. Tim Harshbarger says: Reply

    I sometimes use accessibility statements to decide if I want to conduct business with an organization. I look at the statement to see what they have done to make their products and services accessible. That is especially important in a situation where there is some level of commitment to the business relationship like a bank or insurance company or some kind of online service where I have to sign up to get access. If I don’t like Amazon’s accessibility, I can just go take my business another place. But if I don’t like my bank’s or mortgage company’s accessibility, I can’t go choose someone else so easily.

    • hassellinclusion says: Reply

      Brilliant perspective, Tim.

      If there was a business case for how important it is for organisations to write an effective accessibility statement, you’ve just given it!

      Many thanks – you’ve made a great addition to my blog

  5. Lynne Tamor says: Reply

    I’m struggling with writing accessibility statements for our new company site (accessibleinfo.org) and a client site (accessiblevoting.org). Your post, and especially the UK example, are very helpful.

    • hassellinclusion says: Reply

      Glad to have been of help, Lynne. If you know of others who might also find it helpful please send them a link.

  6. Steve Scott says: Reply

    Informative and useful post – thank you

    I am responsible for product and technology for a software company delivering digital course content and collaboration tools to students and faculty within higher education institutions in the US. Can you cite any good examples that are addressing our market? I assume the advice is the same. Anything you would add or modify?

    • hassellinclusion says: Reply

      Glad my post helped you, Steve.

      There isn’t much a huge difference between effective statements for general websites and eLearning sites, as their audiences are very similar.

      You might consider that there is less likelihood that people with learning difficulties will be using your resources, as most do not achieve HE. It may be more important to look at the accessibility limitations of your resources, as much course content these days is video or highly interactive, both of which may be expensive to make accessible to all. You may also be more likely to include alternative resources for students with different learning styles or approaches to choose from, or accessibility customisation or personalisation tools, both of which should be explained (see, for example, my slides on New approaches for providing accessibile eLearning to SEN learners). Finally, I’d alter your vocabulary to suit your particular market. So ‘people with disabilities’ might be better stated ‘learners with Special Educational Needs’ (or similar).

      Doing a very brief look at some HE institutions accessibility statements…
      JISC TechDis do a pretty good job in their statement. The Open University’s statement is also reasonable, although the order of information could do with a tweak and mentioning any accessibility limitations.

      Rarely do any organisations mention any limitations, even when most disabled people I know say this actually increases their trust in the organisation’s commitment to accessibility rather than decreasing it.

      Hope this helps…

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