This is for everyone: accessibility and digital

For many people the Web has become a primary resource for recreation, socialising, shopping, research, education and other aspects of life. Being ‘online’ can offer so much that we can feel a little lost without it and it can be hard to remember or imagine life before it.

The Web has also transformed how The National Archives’ services are used by the public. Every month millions of people access our digital services – whether using Discovery to explore our catalogue and the catalogues of other archives; seeking information from our website; using the UK Government Web Archive to access archived government websites or legislation.gov.uk to read the law.

The web is meant to be for everyone

An important part of why the Web can provide so much for so many people results from it being an inclusive platform. The underlying technologies are designed to cater for huge differences in hardware, software, language, culture and location.

It’s like Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, tweeted during the opening ceremony for London 2012: ‘This is for everyone’.

This design also allows the Web to offer unprecedented access to information and interaction for many disabled people, enabling them to overcome accessibility barriers to traditional print, audio and visual media.

The Web is broken

The bad news is that, despite this potential, most of the web has accessibility barriers that make it difficult or impossible for many disabled people to use the web.

This should seem strange. How is it that inherently inclusive tools are being used in a way that excludes people? I believe this happens because – while people generally have good intentions – there are so many technical and design choices that can result in a site or application unintentionally excluding some users. In my experience these tend to result from three broad areas:

  1. The design and technical implementation is based upon the abilities and perspectives of the people who built it without properly considering the diversity of potential users
  2. Accessibility is treated as a ‘bolt-on’ at the end of the process, rather than an integral part of every design and technical decision.
  3. The product has not been sufficiently tested – something that can present a real challenge to even the best intentioned teams.

This brokenness affects everyone

There are also some unhelpful myths about what accessibility means for the broader user experience. One which is worth addressing specifically is the view that making a site accessible will make the experience worse for a ‘typical’ user.

‘many developers feel that addressing accessibility will force them to choose between creating a delightful and attractive experience, and one that is clunky and ugly but accessible. That is, of course, not the case at all…’ (Google)

The truth is that a well executed, accessible implementation will result in a better user experience for everyone. This was illustrated when gov.uk was awarded Design Museum Design of The Year in 2013 while simultaneously setting a new standard for accessible thinking in design.

It’s also important to challenge the notion of a ‘typical’ user. We are all unique and our needs change over time. These might be changes related to ageing or illness, or they may be a simple change in our context or the device we’re using.

We want our digital services to be for everyone

At The National Archives we want to provide the most accessible services possible, in a way that works across a broad range of products and teams. We want to be able to clearly communicate what this means to new members of staff and outside agencies that build things for us.

We thought the best way to achieve this would be to put accessibility at the heart of our wider design, development and testing approach. We’re doing this by:

  • considering accessibility as part of all the digital services we create, and at every stage
  • working together to produce development standards that set out what is expected, point to useful resources and outline a process that will allow us to do so efficiently and effectively
  • establishing a peer review process to help ensure design, development and testing meets standards we’ve agreed

We have made these materials available on GitHub because we’d like to be open about our aims and involve our users in the development of these standards and processes going forward.

One of the biggest challenges we face is real-world testing that will help us understand how people with accessibility needs experience our products. While we can get a good sense of issues by following good practices and testing, understanding how the service works for a person is much more valuable. If you could help us with this please email us at webmaster@nationalarchives.gov.uk and we’ll get in touch with you.

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