Fix the Web launches accessibility reporting toolbar – bad news for startups?

Fix the web logoInternet startups have a lot on their plate and much of it is outside of their core business. Things like government red tape, raising funding, recruitment, and other peripheral but necessary activities add to the pain of building great products and suck up scarce bandwidth. But what about the need to make your website accessible to people with various disabilities?

A new browser toolbar – it’s actually a bookmarklet – from the campaign ‘Fix the Web‘ aims to make it easier for users with a disability and volunteers supporting the campaign to report when a website falls foul of making it accessible to all. It’s based on the ATBar, developed by researchers from the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and basically makes it a lot quicker to report an issue to the Fix the Web campaign who will then investigate and alert (and work with) the offending website to find a fix.

At this point I need to declare a non-interest. Some readers will be aware that I use a wheelchair. However, I’m happy to report that I have no issues when surfing the web, although I’ve been advised to steer clear of Internet Explorer.

Of course, there’s a strong moral case for making your startup’s web/cloud-based offering accessible to all. Witness the outcry on Twitter and elsewhere when the Egyptian government effectively broke the Internet for its people. But for many disabled people, parts of the web are broken by default and barely a hash tag is muttered – hence the aptly named Fix the web campaign.

(In fact, you can report accessibility problems via Twitter using #fixtheweb #fail, the offending URL and a brief description of the problem.)

On the other side of the coin, however – and I’m no expert – is the tension between the added cost of complying with accessibility guidelines, which for some websites may even be a legal requirement, and that innovating on the web, which is the domain of startups, often involves pushing the envelope of browser technology. Anybody who has tried and failed to get their fancy AJAX User Interface to work on certain versions of Internet Explorer, for example, might struggle to make it screen reader compatible. But then again, something as simple as using proper alt tags or not locking down font sizes could help a great deal and I’m sure there are a host of other low hanging fixes. People with disabilities are potential customers after all.

So, startups reading this, have you ever considered accessibility? If the Fix the Web tool bar takes off – British cultural icon Stephen Fry is backing the campaign – then you might just have to.