Embedding accessible design skills in the next generation of web developers

Last Monday I was in Dundee, speaking to final students at the University of Dundee’s School of Computing.

The School of Computing takes quite a holistic view of teaching computing, and one of the modules covers the “real world”. The School asks external experts to come in and talk to the students about things like identity theft and security standards (such as PCI-DSS), and other laws and regulations that may impact upon what they do when they get out into the working world.

The area that I talk to students about each November is disability discrimination laws and accessible design for websites and mobile apps, an area I’ve been involved with for a number of years (my honours dissertation was on this). This particular talk dovetails with the School’s technical expertise in relation to accessible and usable design.

Rather than bore the students with a dry lecture on The Law, I try to show them how it is relevant to the future careers, and why having a good understanding of the relevant laws will make them more employable, and give their future employers a competitive advantage.

There are a number of key messages that I try to get across:

  • if a website or app is not designed properly, it may be inaccessible to users with disabilities;
  • operators of websites and providers of mobile apps have, in their capacity as service providers educators, and employers, legal obligations not to discriminate on the grounds of disability;
  • failure to do this may lead to that organisation being sued and, perhaps more importantly for a big organisation, suffer damage to its reputation;
  • web and software designers will be responsible for designing and delivering those websites/apps;
  • even if you are working for an independent design company, that company will have contractual liability to the client, and if a site is poorly designed the client may have the right to sue;
  • public sector organisations have a legal obligation to ensure that their ITTs set out requirements in relation to accessibility – if the designer doesn’t have the skills, then it may not get the work;
  • therefore understanding accessible and usable design and the legal obligations applying to your employer/clients will give you a competitive edge – whether in the job market or in winning business.

If we are doing things right, then hopefully accessible and usable design will become second nature to the web and app designers of tomorrow.

If you are involved in commissioning a new website, or a mobile app, then I recommend that you read BS 8878, a new(ish) British standard on commissioning accessible websites. It’s not a technical document, but instead a process that organisations can follow to assist with appointing a designer with appropriate accessibility expertise, and to help ensure the final output is accessible to users with disabilities.

Updated 11 April 2012:The official slides on BS 8878 from its launch, together with other free information including case studies of organisations using BS 8878, detailed blogs on its use by SMEs, tools and training for applying the Standard, and news on its progress towards an International Standard can be found on the Hassell Inclusion website. If you have been put off from downloading BS8878 because of its cost, then this resource provides a good (and free) alternative to get you started.

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