The Disability Rights Commission got some good coverage today on publication of their report on the accessibility of websites. With the new laws coming into play later this year, this is about to be a big deal. In the past, the most referenced case (and mentioned in their report) was:

the Australian case of Maguire v The Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games found that the Committee had been in breach of the Australian Disability Discrimination Act 1992 by failing to provide a website to which Mr Maguire could have access

From memory the argument went along the lines that it shouldn’t be done because it would be too expensive – but the judge (correctly in my view) said something like “it would have been a lot cheaper if you’d taken care at the beginning, so you’ll have to do it anyway”. Case closed.

The report covered people with the following disabilities:

– blind people who use screen readers with synthetic speech or Braille output
– partially sighted people who may use screen magnification
– people who are profoundly deaf and hard of hearing
– people with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia
– physically impaired people whose use of the Web may be affected by their lack of control of arms and hands, by tremor and by lack of dexterity in hands and fingers

That’s a significant part of the population – particularly if you focus in on those with dyslexia (which is probably as hard a problem to cater for as any of the others because it’s all about writing style versus colours, templates, style sheets and design/layout).

The conclusions are not new – previous studies have reported much the same – but that does not mean they’re not worrying:

Most websites (81%) fail to satisfy the most basic Web Accessibility Initiative category. In addition, the results of the evaluations undertaken by disabled users show that they have characteristics that make it very difficult, if not impossible, for people with certain impairments, especially those who are blind, to make use of the services provided

And one of the recommendations is that government should:

– take steps towards establishing Web accessibility and usability as matters of genuine concern for service providers in the public and private sector, ensuring that its own sites are exemplars of best practice
– sponsor a publicity campaign to make website owners and commissioners better aware of the Web accessibility and usability needs of disabled people, and of their own obligations under the DDA
– take steps towards the systematic collection of data on the following: the extent to which disabled people experience problems with website accessibility in the public and private sectors; the extent to which private sector organisations are aware of their duties in this regard; and the extent to which private sector websites meet acceptable standards for use by disabled people
– promote authoritative research into the costs and benefits of designing and testing websites for ease of use by the public in general and by disabled users in particular, and bring the findings to the attention of those with obligations under the DDA.

There are many other recommendations but I am always worried when I see a “government should” sentence. Government should do lots of things and, of course, reports are published every day that say that this is what should happen. But translating the should into action and, better still, translating it from action at the government end into action at the other end (the business or citizen) is quite a challenge – after all, people don’t pay tax, people drive too fast, people smoke, people do what they shouldn’t do – no matter who tells them.

The report does say that government sites are generally better than private sector sites

Of the five sectors investigated, the Government and Information sector achieved much better results than the other sectors, with 32% of home pages achieving automated Level A compliance. For all other sectors, automated compliance levels were approximately 15%.

(and that might be something that the folks in Norfolk want to look at in terms of where does the money go – setting up sites that work across a full range of browsers and that are fully accessible is not cheap!)

They go on to say that only two sites are AA compliant (the minimum hurdle is “A”) and that none were “AAA”. Getting accessibility right at the front end is easier than the back end – so getting A or even AA on your public-facing pages is not a huge challenge, if you do it at the beginning rather than retro-fitting, but getting the same on your content management system will be hard unless it’s done “out of the box” (and find me one system that truly is).

Nowhere in the report can I find the list of sites sampled, or even the ones that are shining examples of the way things look. I’d like to think that DotP sites are, based on independent analysis we’ve already had done, but it doesn’t say in the report. I’ll have to hunt that info down separately and see whether I can gloat (momentarily) or if I have work to do so that the sites are better – after all, feedback is good, no matter whether it’s positive or negative.

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