Accessibility is now one of the key issues facing organisations when they plan their web presence. Although section 21 of the UK Disability Discrimination Act makes accessibility a mandatory requirement, no court cases have yet been brought as a result. One of the problems is that there are no hard and fast standards - only guidelines. Nonetheless, many large companies and organisations are recognising the obligations the law places on them to make their services accessible to all.

What is surprising is that it took legislation to make organisations take notice of the issue. As the RNIB states, nearly two million people in the UK have a visual impairment of some kind - why would companies choose to exclude one in thirty of their potential customers? Seen in that light, the key question is not "Why does accessibility matter?", but "Why do you want to prevent people using your service?"

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Access issues

Accessibility is about more than just making pages that work in text-only browsers and screen readers, although these are key considerations. Accessibility issues aren't just about addressing part of the audience, they're about making sure that everyone can get the most out of your website, no matter who they are, what technology they're using or what disabilities they may have. Just as thinking on "disabled access" in building design can tend to be restricted to provision for wheelchairs, so website accessibility is too often taken to mean nothing more than creating something that works with screen readers.

Thankfully, the museum sector is already far more aware than most of of accessibility issues. The work of people such as Margareta Ekarv has raised awareness of the need for content, not just environment, to be accessible. The Jodi Awards, first presented in 2002, showed that the sector was engaging with the issues and keen to promote best practice.

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Standards and Guidelines

Web accessibility starts with well-written HTML. Following the W3C HTML recommendations thoughtfully will lead to a site that functions well in text-only browsers and screen readers. It's remarkable that the vast majority of web pages come nowhere near meeting even these specifications - let alone the far more stringent guidelines for creating a page that is accessible to all.

The most widely-used guidelines for web accessibility are those created by the World Wide Web Consortium itself. The content accessibility guidelines of the Web Accessibility Initiative are divided into three priority levels. Priority 1 guidelines must be met or some groups will find it impossible to access some of the content. Website producers should also aim to meet Priority 2 guidelines, or some groups will have difficulty with areas of content. Priority 3 guidelines describe areas that may cause some difficiculty to certain groups if they are not met. Producers may choose to meet these guidelines.

Care must be taken not to rely solely on automated services for checking web accessibility. Many of the WAI guidelines cannot be accurately checked by a computer program - they need to be assessed by a human being. What's accessible to one user can be at best inconvenient to another, so there will always be a degree of discretion involved. Automated services can be particularly bad at assessing the accessibility of JavaScript elements - in fact there's often a sense that JavaScript should be avoided altogether, but that would leave the web a very boring place for the majority of users. Well-thought-out design can be visually appealing, dynamically interactive and fully accessible - if you make the effort.

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