Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Compliance badges

Years ago, there were sites proudly sporting "Bobby approved" graphics, to denote it was accessible. There are still many of those sites around. There are new badges signifying a site is accessible, or at least it should be. But what is the real value of those accessibility badges? Do they really mean anything? Should we, as accessible web designer, promote their use? Or should we ignore them? There are pros and cons with these badges, as with most things.

International Symbol of Access

Physical structures that are accessible, such as shops, hotels, malls, etc are expected to display the ISA. Without this, people with disabilities don’t know whether they can get into and through a building, and use the facilities. Not displaying the ISA does not mean the place is not accessible. Further, displaying the badge does not ensure that the building complies with accessibility requirements! But generally speaking, it gives a good indication of the situation. With the ISA right at the entrance of the building, one knows ahead of time whether their experience is likely to be good or not. Then of course, buildings don’t change quite as easily as websites, so when the ISA is displayed, you can generally be relatively sure that steps haven’t sprouted in the way, or that doors suddenly didn’t become too narrow.

Which leads me to problem #1 with website accessibility badges: Websites change a lot, they change often, and they change fast. The developer may have delivered a fully compliant site to the client, and the client went on to make changes to the site, whether through adding content or making some "simple tweaks to improve the design" (as client have been known to do from time to time). Is the site still accessible? Is it still meeting the accessibility requirements?

Problem #2 is that even if the badge is accorded appropriately for a page, all too often a badge is applied to an entire site. The page tested might very well meet requirements, but perhaps a majority of the other pages on the site do not meet these requirements. So applying the badge indiscriminately site-wide might in fact mislead visitors.

Problem #3 is that badges are rarely placed at the very top of a page. What is the purpose of the badge? Is it to let visitors know that a site is accessible and usable? If that is the case, who really needs to know that the site is accessible? People with disabilities, right? Just as there is no point putting the ISA inside the building where it can’t be seen from the outside, if the accessibility badge is half-way down the page, it loses effectiveness in notifying a visitor that the site is accessible. If notifying visitors that the site is accessible is not the point of those badges, then what are they for?

Then, there is the fact that most people don’t know much about what makes a site accessible. This is problem #4. Anyone could just display a badge, with the majority of people being none the wiser. They would take it for granted "hey! this site is accessible". How are they to know? And this leads me to the next problem I see.

Problem #5, unscrupulous or misguided developers may be jumping on the "bandwagon" of accessibility and giving out accessibility badges to site that are not quite accessible. Badges must come from reliable organisations. Badges generated by automated testing tools are not reliable. So between unreliable badges from automated testing tools and potentially misguided developers, how can we really trust badges? Of course, even with trustworthy organisations providing badges, we are left with problem #3 again!

So, perhaps those badges are more about the site owners feeling good about themselves and their sites than indicating anything really useful to visitors with disabilities? I don’t know. The situation is of course not quite as bleak as I paint it. But I raised those five problems as something to consider.

But in the end, "the proof is in the pudding", either your site is accessible and people can use it, or it’s not. Whether we display badges or not, real people being able to use the site is the milestone we are really looking for.

3 thoughts on “Compliance badges

  1. Nicolas,

    I totally agree with you.

    Most of the time badges are used to make the site owner feel good about his / her website and not in the interest of the (disabled) visitor.

    What people tend to forget is that a web page, if coded properly, is accessible by default. It’s bad coding practices or unnecessary gimmicks (flash, javascript…) that make the page less accessible and sometimes non-accessible.

  2. I’d rather think that websites should be accessible by default. As Leo puts it, it’s the unnecessary gimmicks that pose as challenges. Perhaps, it’s better to have a non-accessibility badge than to have an accessibility badge so that people will know that they shouldn’t expect too much from a website because of the gimmicks? :)

  3. Arielle, I’d also rather think that website should be accessible by default. It’s not like it is that difficult to make a site work from an accessibility point of view.

    Although I *suspect* that no one would volunteer to put in a “hey I suck” badge on their site ;)

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