The BBC rolled out its new-look BBC News website redesign today amid much fanfare. It’s attracted a lot of comment, not just on the site itself but also across the media-reporting media. Taking out all the “if it ain’t broke, why fix it” remarks, of which there were very many, there still seemed to be an overwhelming thumbs down for the use of white space, the disliked Helvetica Neue typeface and problems with display and rendering in various browsers.


Steve Herrman, the editor of BBC News Online, gave a lengthy explanation to readers of all the changes brought in by the redesign but you have to dig a bit deeper to discover why the new look news service will be completely unusable for many people.

The old version of BBC News offered a low-graphics option to readers – this was not only ideal for users still using dial-up or accessing the site with a mobile phone, it was also perfect for people with visual impairments. The simple format meant it could be easily read not just by people living with near blindness but also those with other visual problems such as dyslexia.

Not any more.

To find out why, you have to follow a link in Herrman’s editorial to the FAQs on the redesign. The fifth question explains why the low-graphics version was turned off in April:

The low-graphics version was designed as a low-bandwidth alternative to the full website at a time when most users of the site were using slow dial-up connections. We are now making improvements to the site which will meet most of the needs of the people who used the low-graphics version.

Fair enough, for the most part. But the next FAQ reveals that disabled people with visual impairments have been excluded from the accessibility of the new site:

How will you ensure the site is still user-friendly for those with disabilities?

We know that people used the low-graphics version because it was simpler to read and we now offer the mobile version of the site online which provides a similarly simplified presentation.

We are also expecting to roll out a suite of accessibility tools this year. These are designed to provide much better support to a range of users – especially those with lo-vision, asperger syndrome, dyslexia, ADHD, or those who find text hard to read. For those who have been using low graphics as a more accessible version, these new tools will provide a much better service.

You can find out more about it on the Ouch! website.

Quite simply, the BBC is saying “tough” if you can’t read the site anymore, you’ll just have to wait until we fix it. There’s no mention of any deadline they are aiming for to roll out accessibility tools for the visually impaired and they seem to have forgotten that many of those now excluded will have at least as much trouble reading the site on a mobile device. They also seem to have forgotten that disabled users of the BBC are licence-fee payers and just as entitled to full access to our public-service broadcaster as all other licence-fee payers.

What I find really shocking is that accessibility was not built into the redesign from the beginning. There are globally agreed standards – WCAG 2.0 – for website accessibility that cover a huge range of issues such as “blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity and combinations of these” (source: WCAG 2.0). The standards enable disabled users to render web pages in their browser according to need, allowing for text size adjustment, customisation of contrast and so on.

The WCAG standards have been around for a long time, which rather begs the question why the BBC hasn’t applied them this time – it’s not as if they hadn’t heard of them, given they have used them in previous versions of BBC News Online.

The Disability Discrimination Act requires all businesses and services to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people. That’s absolutely fine when it comes to figuring out how to build a ramp for a shop that is sited in a listed building, for example. But there’s no excuse when it comes to building something from scratch. It’s sad that many companies building new premises still don’t consider physical access issues when drawing up architect plans.

It’s even sadder in a virtual environment where the rules are clear and straightforward, especially when you consider the virtual environment is one where disabled people often find it far easier to participate fully in society than they do in the built environment. And when it’s a publicly funded service that is doing the excluding, it makes me want to weep with frustration.

The BBC didn’t need to make “reasonable adjustments” – they could have been incorporated from the start. It has breached the Disability Discrimination Act in a two-fingered gesture to a significant minority of its licence-fee payers. And it expects them to just wait it out until its web team gets round to making the necessary tweaks to provide full disabled access to our national news service.

Shame on you, Aunty.

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