UKOLN AHDS Standards and Accessibility Compliance for the DEMOS Project Web Site


The DEMOS Project [1]

Funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England under strand three of the initiative 'Improving Provision for Students with Disabilities', the aim of the DEMOS Project was to develop an online learning package aimed at academic staff and to examine the issues faced by disabled students in higher education. The project was a collaboration between the four universities in the Manchester area - the University of Salford [2], the University of Manchester [3], the Manchester Metropolitan University [4] and UMIST [5].

The Web Site

At the start of the project the purpose of the Web site was still unclear, which made it difficult to plan the information structure of the site. Of course, it would serve as a medium to disseminate the project findings, research reports, case studies... but for months the design and the information architecture of this site seemed to be in a neverending state of change.

In the early stage of the project virtual learning environments, such as WebCT, were tested and deemed unsuitable for delivering the course material, due to the fact that they did not satisfy the requirements for accessibility.

Demos Web site
Figure 1: The Demos Web Site

At this point it was decided that the Web site should carry the course modules. This changed the focus of the site from delivering information about the progress of the project to delivering the online course material.

In the end we envisioned a publicly accessible resource that people can use in their own time and at their own pace. They can work through the modules in the linear fashion they were written in or they can skip through via the table of contents available on every page. There are also FAQ pages, which point to specific chapters.

Many academic institutions have already added links to the DEMOS materials on their own disability or staff development pages.

Problem Being Addressed

To ignore accessibility would have been a strange choice for a site that wants to teach people about disability. Accessibility was therefore the main criteria in the selection of a Web developer.

I have been a Web designer since 1998 and specialised in accessibility from the very beginning. For me it is a matter of ethics. Now it is also the law.

The challenge here was to recreate, at least partially, the feeling of a learning environment with its linear structure and incorporating interactivity in form of quizzes and other learning activities without the use of inaccessible techniques for the creation of dynamic content.

The Approach Taken

Accessibility techniques were applied from the beginning. But the site also represents an evolution in my own development as a Web designer, it always reflected my own state of knowledge. Where in the beginning accessibility meant eradicating the font tag, it now means standard-compliant code and tableless CSS layout.

Valid and Accessible Design and Code

This site was designed in compliance with the latest standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) [6] and using the latest accessibility techniques [7] as recommended by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) [8] .

In December 2001 the code base of the site was switched over to XHTML 1.0 Transitional. In November 2002 the site was further improved by changing it to a CSS layout, which is used to position elements on the page without the use of tables. The only layout table left is the one holding the header: logo, search box and top navigation icons.

Stylesheets are also used for all presentational markup and a separate print stylesheet has been supplied.

The code was validated using the W3C Validation Services [9].

Standards = Accessibility

With the advent of standard-compliant (version 6 and 7) browsers, the Web developer community started pushing for the adoption of the W3C guidelines as standard practise by all Web designer. Now that version 3 and 4 browsers with all their proprietary mark-up were about to be consigned to the scrap heap of tech history, it was finally possible to apply all the techniques the W3C was recommending. Finally the makers of user agents had started listening to the W3C too and were making browsers that rendered pages designed according to standards correctly. (It turns out things weren't all that rosy but that's the topic for another essay.)

Standards are about accessibility, or, as the W3C phrases it, 'universal design'. They ensure that universal access is possible, i.e. that the information contained on a Web page can be accessed using

User Control

The most important reason for designing according to standards is that it gives the user control over how a Web page is presented. The user should be able to increase font sizes, apply preferred colours, change the layout, view headers in a logical structure, etc.

This control can be provided by the Web designer by:

On the DEMOS site, all presentational styles are specified in stylesheets. The site 'transforms gracefully' when stylesheets are ignored by the user agent, which means that the contents of a page linearises logically. The user has control over background and link colours via the browser preferences and can increase or decrease font sizes.

The DEMOS Guide to Accessible Web Design contains a chapter on User Control [10], which describes how these changes can be applied in various browsers.

Accessibility Techniques

(The links below lead to pages on the DEMOS site, more precisely: the DEMOS Guide to Accessible Web Design [11] )

Some of the techniques used:

More information and details: Accessibility techniques used on the DEMOS site [12] (listed by WAI checkpoints).

Inclusive Design

Web developers sometimes believe that accessibility means providing a separate text-only or low-graphics version for the blind. First of all: I have always been on that side of the camp that believes that there should be only one version of a site and that it should be accessible.

"Don't design an alternative text-only version of the site: disabled people are not second class citizens..." (Antonio Volpon, [13] )

Secondly, accessibility benefits not only blind people [14]. To be truly inclusive we have to consider people with a variety of disabilities, people with a range of visual, auditory, physical or cognitive disabilities, people with learning disabilities, not to forget colour blindness, senior citizens, speakers of foreign languages, et cetera, et cetera.

Surely not all of them are part of the target audience, but you never know, and applying all available accessibility techniques consistently does not take that much more effort.

We tried to provide a satisfactory experience for everyone, providing user control, keyboard access, icons and colour to loosen things up, whitespace and headers to break up text in digestable chunks. And we encourage people to provide feedback, especially if they experience any problems.

Accessibility Testing

To ensure accessibility the site was tested across a variety of user agents and on different platforms. A number of screenshots from these tests [15] can be found at the DEMOS site.

The site has also been tested using the Bobby [16] and the Wave [17] Accessibility Checker. It is AAA compliant, which means that it meets all three levels of accessibility.

Accessible Interactivity

One of the last things we finally solved to our satisfaction was the problem of creating interactive quizzes and learning activities for the course modules without the use of inaccessible techniques. Many of the techniques for the creation of dynamic and multimedia content (JavaScript, Java, Flash...) are not accessible.

Eventually we discovered that PHP, a scripting language, was perfect for the job. PHP is processed server-side and delivers simple HTML pages to the browser without the need for plug-ins or JavaScript being enabled.

Problems Encountered

Information Architecture and Navigation

As mentioned before, the Web site started without a clear focus and without a clear structure. Therefore there wasn't much planning and structured development. In the first months content was added as it was created (in the beginning mainly information about the project) and the site structure grew organically. This caused some problems later when main sections had to be renamed and content restructured. From the Web development point of view this site has been a lesson in building expandability into early versions of Web site architecture.

Since there was so much uncertainty about the information architecture in the beginning, the navigation system is not the best it could be. The site grew organically and navigations items were added as needed. The right-hand navigation was added much later when the site had grown and required more detailed navigation - more detailed than the main section navigation at the top of the page underneath the logo and strapline.

But the right-hand navigation is mainly sub-navigation, section navigation, which might be confusing at times. At the same time, however, it always presents a handy table of contents to the section the visitor is in. This was especially useful in the course modules.

The breadcrumb navigation at the top of the main content was also added at a later date to make it easier for the visitor to know where they are in the subsections of the site.

Netscape 4

Already mentioned in Phil Barker's report on the FAILTE Project Web Site [18], Netscape 4 was also my biggest problem.

Netscape 4 users still represent a consistent 12% of visitors in the UK academic environment (or at least of the two academic sites I am responsible for). Since this is the target audience for the DEMOS site, Netscape 4 quirks (i.e. its lack of support for standards) had to be taken into account.

Netscape understands just enough CSS to make a real mess of it. Older browsers (e.g. version 3 browsers) simply ignore stylesheets and display pages in a simpler fashion with presentational extras stripped, while standard-compliant browsers (version 6 and 7) display pages coded according to standards correctly. Netscape 4 is stuck right between those two scenarios, which is the reason why the DEMOS site used tables for layout for a long time.

Tables are not really a huge accessibility problem if used sparingly and wisely. Jeffrey Zeldman wrote in August 2002 in 'Table Layout, Revisited' [19]:

Table layouts are harder to maintain and somewhat less forward compatible than CSS layouts. But the combination of simple tables, sophisticated CSS for modern browsers, and basic CSS for old ones has enabled us to produce marketable work that validates - work that is accessible in every sense of the word.

Tables might be accessible these days because screenreader software has become more intelligent but standard-compliance was my aim and layout tables are not part of that.

Luckily techniques have emerged that allow us to deal with the Netscape 4 quirks.

One option is to prevent Netscape 4 from detecting the stylesheet, which means it would deliver the contents in the same way as a text-only browser, linearised: header, navigation, content, footer following each other. No columns, colours, font specifications. But an audience of 12% is too large to show a site to that has lost its 'looks'. The site still had to look good in Netscape 4.

The other option is to use a trick to get Netscape 4 to ignore some of the CSS instructions [20] . Deliver a basic stylesheet to Netscape 4 and an additional stylesheet with extra instructions to modern browsers. This required a lot of tweaking and actually consumed an enormous amount of time but only because I was new to CSS layout. I have converted a number of other sites to CSS layout in the meantime, getting better at it every time.

The DEMOS site now looks good in modern browsers, looks OK but not terrific in Netscape 4, and simply linearises logically in browsers older than that and in text-only browsers.

To Do

There are still a few issues that need looking at, e.g. the accessibility of input forms needs improving (something I'm currently working on) and the structural mark-up needs improving so that headers are used in logical order starting with <h1>

There are also a few clashes of forms with the CSS layout. All forms used on the DEMOS site are still in the old table layout. I haven't had the time to figure out what the problem is.

Eventually I also plan to move the code to XHTML Strict and get rid of the remains of deprecated markup [21] , which XHTML Transitional, the doctype [22] used at the moment, still forgives.

The Site's Future

Of course it is important to keep the materials produced over the last two and a half years accessible to the public after the funding has run out. This will happen at the end of March 2003. This site will then become part of the Access Summit Web site (at time of writing still under constructions). Access Summit is the Joint Universities Disability Resource Centre that was set up in 1997 to develop provision for and support students with disabilities in higher education in Manchester and Salford.

We currently don't know whether we will be able to keep the domain name, so keep in mind that the URL of the DEMOS site might change. I will do my best to make it possible to find the site easily.

Resources and References


DEMOS Web site
<> Guide to Accessible Web Design:
A collation of tips, guidelines and resources by the author of this case study. Focuses on techniques but includes chapters on barriers to access, evaluation, legislation, usability, writing for the Web and more. Includes a huge resources section <> where you can find links to W3C guidelines, accessibility and usability articles, disability statistics, browser resources, validation tools, etc. This section also contains a list of resources that helped me understand the power of stylesheets <>.

DEMOS Accessibility Guide:
Consists of the Techniques section from the above Guide to Accessible Web Design <>, plus includes extra information on accessibility techniques used on the DEMOS site <> (listed by WAI checkpoints) and a number of demonstrations <> on how the site looks under a variety of circumstances.


  1. The DEMOS Project
  2. University of Salford
  3. University of Manchester
  4. Manchester Metropolitan University
  5. University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST)
  6. World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
  7. Guide to Accessible Web Design, Iris Manhold.
  8. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)
  9. W3C Validation Services
  10. DEMOS Accessibility Guide: User Control, Iris Manhold
  11. DEMOS Accessibility Guide, Iris Manhold
  12. Accessibility Techniques Used on the DEMOS Site (listed by WAI checkpoints)
  13. The Lifecycle of Web Accessibility, Antonio Volpon,
  14. Benefits of Accessibility, Iris Manhold
  15. The DEMOS site tested
  16. Bobby Accessibility Checker
  17. Wave Accessibility Checker
  18. Standards and Accessibility Compliance for the FAILTE Project Web Site, Phil Barker
  19. Table Layout, Revisited, Jeffrey Zeldman, A List Apart, 17 August 2001
  20. Tricking browsers and hiding styles, Eric A. Meyer
  21. Deprecated markup
  22. Doctype

Contact details

Please contact me if you have feedback, suggestions or questions about the DEMOS site, my design choices, accessible web design, web standards or the new location of the site.

Iris Manhold

Iris Manhold
14 February 2003

Citation Details:
"Standards and Accessibility Compliance for the DEMOS Project Web Site", by Iris Manhold. Published by QA Focus, the JISC-funded advisory service, on 3 March 2002
Available at

QA Focus Comments

This case study describes a project funded by HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England). Although the project has not been funded by the JISC, the approaches described in the case study may be of interest to JISC projects.

The DEMOS Web site was moved from its original location (<>) in March 2003. It is now available at <>.

It was noticed that the definition of XHTML and CSS given in the <acronym> element was incorrect. This was fixed on 7 October 2003.

Citation Details

Standards and Accessibility Compliance for the DEMOS Project Web Site, Manhold, I., QA Focus case study 10, UKOLN,

The document was published in February 2003.