Accessibility in the GLAM sector

Mar 06, 2015

How accessible are the websites of galleries, libraries, archives and museums?

Prompted by this fantastic post by S.E. Smith for The Kernel, entitled How accessible is the Internet? I wanted to expand on this a little, and look specifically at websites in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives & museums) sector.

Those championing accessible websites will know that there are different laws and regulations depending on where in the world you are located. The US has Section 504, Australia has the Disibility Discrimination Act of 1992 (which has a number of statements that could apply directly to web accessibility), and there are similar acts in New Zealand, Canada, and some European countries.

Europe on the whole has been lacking real policy, although this draft law could change all of that, at least initially for websites in the public sector.

All websites managed by public sector bodies would have to be made accessible to everyone, including the elderly and the disabled

MEPs have been suggested to give member states one year to comply with these rules for new content, and three years for existing content.

This change has been a long time coming, and it would be naive to think that it will stop there.

How Europe’s Culture Institutes Fair

I will take a look at three cultural institutes across Europe. To be fair I will focus on websites available in the English language. I will use WAVE to perform the majority of these tests, and I will also run through the sites using a keyboard as my input device, and Chromevox as my screen reader. Chromevox is unlikely to be the screen reader widely used, but it performs a reasonable job of showing where issues may be.


On first impressions the WAVE report looks good and perhaps this is where a tick would appear next to ‘complete accessibility check’. However, as the videos performing tasks will show below, this is not good enough.

Task 1: Change the language

Changing the language could be improved. Even though the <button> was announced there was no information on the associated menu, the action performed, or the state of the button. Here is an example of an ARIA menu.

The search ‘submit’ button was also the first button that you hit, despite having no context to what the button is actually for. This too could be improved so the visitor is aware of the connectivity between the action, and the hidden search field.

  1. Screen readers should indicate that this button has an associated menu.
  2. When the button is pressed, the menu should be tracked like any other menu.
  3. When closing the menu, this should be indicated, and focus should be repeated for the menu button the menu was opened from, or the new focus location if the activated menu item results in that.

Three of the expected results for Menu Buttons

Task 2: Access the collection

I was able to access the collections via the menu at the top. However, there are a number of issues when trying to access the collections via the carousel.

As the video highlights, the carousel moved, despite the keyboard focus being on another slide. I struggled to find the link to enter the collection using a keyboard, and eventually the layout starts to break - purely from trying to jump to headers, buttons and links.

To make a carousel accessible you should:

  1. provide user controls to pause or stop the carousel
  2. ensure user controls are keyboard navigable.
  3. confirm controls are correctly labelled for screen readers

Here are some important considerations for carousels, and here is an example of an accessible carousel.

Whether you should use a carousel or not is another question, and one which Accessibility specialist Jared W Smith humourously answers.

Task 3: Get information on an item in the collection

Problems with focus also exist on item pages, but there are other issues that could be improved, for instance, those with low vision may use the site with the zoom greater than the default 100%. As the image also zooms in with the keyboard, then you lose the sense of the bigger picture, and you are unable to pan to different areas.

A default view of a Rijkmuseum item page, and a 150% view with no ability to move around the canvas
100% and 150% views of The Night Watch

The Rijksmuseum does have some nice features, you can zoom in for starters, and it is responsive, so content will adapt to the screen size you are viewing it on. They also aren’t shy about showing clear focus states when you move around the website. However, there are many improvements that can be made for visitors with visual impairments.

The British Library

The British Library also did well according to WAVE, but sadly many issues arise when using the site.

Task 1: Find the opening times

The visiting times are located under the ‘Visiting’ fold-down menu. However, this was not actionable via the keyboard, and could only be reached with a mouse click or hover.

The only way to get the information was by using a link at the bottom of the page, but this presented more issues, as you will see below. The table was not formatted correctly, and this led to further confusion.

Task 2: Find out more about the Magna Carta exhibition

Perhaps I had been told about a Magna Carta exhibition, and wanted to find out more… unfortunately as the video shows, the carousel provides many problems for screen reader users. In fact, I was unable to get the information at all from the website, even via search.

The British Library have skip navigation links that allow you to jump straight to the main body of content, (although these do not work on the home page), and despite the many major issues it is pleasing to see that the British Library acknowledge that there is more to be done.

We recognise that there is more to be done and we are working towards full compliance with World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines.

The National Gallery reported only two WAVE errors, and have a thorough Accessibility policy, including site specific access keys for expert return visitors.

Task 1: Find the opening times

The National Gallery also include skip navigation links, and have made ‘Visiting’ accessible almost immediately, you will hear that the only real issue is that the photograph of the building is just being read out as ‘Image’.

The W3C have a useful guide on how to treat informative, decorative and functional images, and as the image contains information about the cost of the visit, then this could be improved upon.

Task 2: Find out more about the Inventing Impressionism exhibition

Again, I was able to quickly and easily find the information that I was looking for.

It is always nice to end on positives, but I do also want to say that these tests should never be a replacement for actual user testing, there are many types of assistive technology out there, and different devices may be used in different contexts. You will never understand this without performing real in-person tests.