Part of a Whole

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

Paralympics NZ – When Web Professionals Don’t Do Their Job Right

It seems wrong that a disability-related organisation would have a website that is not accessible. One really shouldn’t cut out their primary market. It tends to happen when the organisation relies on "professionals" who don’t really have any idea what they are doing. And the organisation just knows that they want a website. Often, they don’t even know enough to realise they should ask about accessibility.

This is not necessarily the organisation’s fault. They are good at what they do, and what they do is not website development. So, who’s at fault?

Does it really matter who is at fault? I happen to think it doesn’t matter. What is important is that the issues, the barriers, get fixed.

Back in May 2008, I contacted Paralympics New Zealand about their website (http://paralympics.org.nz). It was trully horrid. Each page was made of a single large image displaying text and graphics. Even if there had been an alt attribute to the image tag, it would have been useless – It is not possible to convey the amount of information on an entire page in one alt attribute.

Paralympics NZ’s Project Manager, Dave Stewart, sent me a nice answer. He said:

The current website was an intermediate design and was (as far as I am aware) never supposed to go live. I am new to Paralympics New Zealand and I will be taking the responsibility for the website from here on out. I yesterday met with a professional who has showed me the current flaws in our design and hopefully we can work to remedy this in the very near future. I should explain that I am not a website developer and consequently my level of ability will only stretch to content management.

In July, the was still in the state it had been when I first looked at it back in May, but Mr. Stewart assured me that the redesign was nearing completion and the site would be up before the Olympics & Paralympics.

Today, a year later, I had another good look at the site. The situation has improved, but is far from perfect.

The main culprit is a lack of alt attribute on images.

Granted, there is some debate within the web accessibility community as to what images should, or should not get an alt attribute. And if the "experts" can’t agree, how can we expect someone who doesn’t work with code to know which image to provide alternative text for? Still, having no alternative text for any of the images is not very good at all.

Even the name & slogan of the site are in an image with no alt provided. "Paralympics New Zealand – Inspiring disabled athletes to become medal winning Paralympians". Seems to me to be an important message to pass on. But turn images off, and that disappears.

I probably wouldn’t be too impressed if I were one of Paralympics NZ’s sponsors, either. Here’s the page viewed with images turned on:

Screenshot of the sponsorship page with images on

And here’s the page with images turned off:

Screenshot of the sponsorship page with images off

If you can’t view images, for whatever reason, you could be forgiven for thinking there are no major sponsors. How could you tell who is sponsoring the organisation?

It would be tempting to think that is not a major issue here. But we should keep in mind that Google, Yahoo!, BING, and other search engines aren’t able to determine content based on a graphic. Search engines, just like screenreading software, relies on the alt attribute to determine content.

The site would gain greatly by adding alternate content to the images displayed.

There are other accessibility issues with the site as it stands. Nothing mission critical, really, yet the accumulation of minor niggles could make for an unpleasant experience using the site. Although there may be more, a quick look revealed the following issues:

"Click here" links
There are a few links that just say "click here", a rather unhelpful link text. Out of context, it means nothing. As it is possible to skip from link to link without going through the entire content, it is important that have link text that stands on its own out of context.
Table based layout
This is not a huge problem as content is organised from left to right and top to bottom. Yet, the amount of code on each page is greatly increased compared to what it could be without using tables. This slows down pages for everyone, is harder to maintain, etc
Deprecated code
Styling declarations use old, deprecated tags. This will cause rendering issue in many browsers.
PDF, MS Word & MS Excel documents
Many documents are in PDF, MS Word or MS Excel format. The information should be readily available without having to download files. Arguably some of the documents are forms that require specific format.

There is a notice that says the site is best viewed in Internet Explorer. Why limit non Explorer users? What am I missing if I don’t use Explorer? Accessibility is not just about disabilities.

There is another domain that appears to have a site for Paralympics NZ: http://www.paralympicsnz.org.nz/. Which one is the correct one? One assumes the first site I was looking at is the correct one. Perhaps a redirect should be in place?

I don’t know the arrangement between Paralympics NZ and the "professional" who did their site. I do hope they did not waste too much money on the website though, because I know 15 year olds that could have done better than said professional. And there’s the problem: When a client doesn’t even know there is a question they should ask, anyone can call themselves a professional web developer and pull the wool over the client’s eyes. Nobody wins.