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Only a quarter of UK council websites accessible, report finds

Only a quarter of UK local authority websites are accessible to people with disabilities, significantly fewer than last year, according to this year’s ‘Better Connected’ council website review by the public sector Society of IT Management (Socitm).

Overall, 105 councils (26%) were rated by the Socitm report as at least ‘satisfactory’, defined as having few serious and practical accessibility problems, with just one– Preston City – rated ‘very good’. Last year, 194 councils (44%) were rated at this level.

Some 311 sites (76%) this year were rated as ‘poor’, and 12 (3%) as entirely ‘inaccessible’, according to tests checks carried out for Socitm by non-profit accessibility testing firm Digital Accessibility Centre, based on the WCAG 2.0 global web access standard. The tests checked website ‘top level’ pages – the main index pages for each council service – as well as the accessibility of carrying out sample tasks such as reporting flytipping to a council using a mobile phone; or finding out about a care home for an elderly relative.

The drop in standards this year is attributed by the report to the introduction of accessibility tests on the site carried out using mobile devices, which resulted in scores on average only half as good as those recorded in tests using desktop computers.

The most common accessibility problems for council websites accessed by desktop computer were lack of clear labels for form fields and associated controls; downloadable ‘non-html’ documents such as pdf files being inaccessible; poor heading structure; and insufficient colour contrast. For access by mobile devices, common problems also included a lack of mobile alternative option for the desktop site.

The report recommends all councils should build accessibility into their criteria for web site procurement; build accessibility checks into their web publishing process; and carry out user testing with disabled people.

The figures emerged just a few days after the European Parliament voted to strengthen a proposed European Directive on the Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites, which would require EU member states to ensure all public websites are fully accessible.

The new law could come into force as early as next year, suggesting UK councils would struggle to comply, although member states would be likely to be allowed a further year to comply for new public sector web content, and three years for existing content.

New standard aims to make ‘rich’ web content accessible

A new technical standard to ensure so-called ‘rich’ web content – dynamic, interactive features of many modern web pages – can be made more accessible to people with disabilities have been published by the international World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

The Accessible Rich Internet Applications 1.0 specification (WAI-ARIA) has become a W3C ‘Recommendation’ – the body’s term for an official standard.

The new group of documents includes a technical specification and primer for developers of web technologies and developers of assistive technologies. It covers complex web navigation techniques created using technologies that can run applications inside web pages such as Ajax and JavaScript. These include ‘tree controls’ – menus that expand or collapse in a tree-like structure; ‘drag-and-drop’ functionality such as slider controls; and content that changes over time such as progress bars.

WAI-ARIA sets out ways such content can be identified, described and controlled by users of assistive technology such as screenreaders, or people who cannot use a mouse. For example it offers a framework for drag-and-drop feature properties that describe drag sources and drop targets.

The new standard is designed to help implement existing web accessibility standards such as WAI’s own Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 in a modern context, W3C WAI director Judy Brewer told E-Access Bulletin.

“WAI-ARIA is essentially one way of meeting WCAG 2.0,” Brewer said. “The principles, guidelines and success criteria from WCAG 2.0 remain remarkably stable – so the “rules,” so to speak, haven’t changed. It’s just that there are now more powerful ways to use those in websites and applications because of the availability of ARIA.”

One of the benefits of creating the new ARIA standard and implementation guidance is to ensure developers do not needlessly work in parallel creating their own accessibility solutions for each new interactive web feature, she said.

“Without the WAI-ARIA technology, developers would have to customize their accessibility solutions for different platforms and devices. With ARIA, they get cross-device, cross-platform accessibility support, and can more easily repurpose their content and applications in different settings without losing any accessibility support.”

The specification will now evolve, with a working draft of WAI-ARIA 1.1 already published for consultation ahead of an even stronger 2.0 version, as her team continues to watch how technology changes and keep ahead in the race for accessibility, Brewer said.

“The constant emergence of new technologies requires a lot of vigilance on the part of accessibility experts and advocates”, she said.

“There’s still a tendency for developers of new technologies to forget that people using the web have varied physical, sensory and cognitive capabilities – and that the digital medium provides such an excellent platform for accommodating all of these variations in human functioning if one just remembers to plan for it at the design stage.”

European Parliament urges stronger public website access law

Members of the European Parliament have voted by a huge majority to beef up a proposed European Directive on the Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites.

This week MEPs backed a move by 593 votes to 40, with 13 abstentions, to require EU member states to ensure all public websites are fully accessible, not just those in 12 categories proposed by the European Commission such as social security benefits and enrolment in higher education.

The parliament also wants the new rules to apply to websites run by private firms performing public tasks, such as energy utility companies and companies providing outsourced public services such as transport or health care.

According to the Parliament’s plan, an optional exemption would be included in the private sector condition for small businesses, however. This would mean companies employing up to 12 people could be exempted from the new law if member states wish. MEPs have proposed giving member states one year to comply with the rules for new content and three years for all existing content, with a further two years for live audio content.

The vote constitutes the European Parliament’s first reading of the proposed directive. The EU Council of Ministers, made up of government ministers from all member states, may now accept, reject or adapt the recommendations, for further subsequent discussion with Parliament.

In a statement following this week’s vote the European Blind Union, an umbrella group of blidness associations from 43 countries including the RNIB in the UK, welcomed “ the strong message sent by the European Parliament to EU governments”.

However it urged rapid action – “within days” – by the current Greek Presidency of the EU to schedule meetings to discuss the directive, something it says is currently not planned other than in general terms.

“It is not enough for the Greek Presidency to have this directive on their ‘to do’ list”, EBU President Wolfgang Angermann said in the statement. “If the presidency refuses to organise a meeting to discuss the directive with member states then they are effectively blocking the legislative process.

“When 92% of MEPs are calling for action, we believe that council members should listen and engage… Failure to act will delay new rules for many months and therefore be hugely detrimental for the 30 million blind and partially sighted EU citizens who struggle to access information and services online”, Angermann said. “People with sight loss have been shut out of the online world for far too long.”

Are airline check-in kiosks onboard with accessibility?

Readers who have travelled by air in the past few years are likely to have come across new technologies designed to enhance the convenience of travel such as automated kiosks where people can check in without queuing for hours in a barely-moving queue of bored passengers.

As so often with new technologies, however, it seems that their accessibility for people with disabilities was not always considered when they were first being developed. And now, in the US, the issue is about to hit the courts.

Earlier this month, US-based charity and campaigning organisation the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a lawsuit against the country’s Department of Transportation claiming the department’s new regulations on the accessibility of airport check-in kiosks breach discrimination legislation.

The law the NFB claims has been violated is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), passed in 1986 to ban discrimination against air travel passengers with disabilities. As part of its duties to comply with this act, the DoT issued the new accessibility regulations which came into effect in December 2013. However, the NFB claims the new rules do not go far enough, and hence do not comply with the law.

So, what is the detail of the federation’s case?

The regulations are split into two separate sections. The first covers website accessibility, requiring airlines to make all public-facing content on their websites compliant with level ‘AA’ of the international World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 by 12 December 2016 – three years after the regulations took effect.

But although the NFB did express frustration back in November at what they called an “overly generous” time period back for website improvements, they are not challenging this timescale in the courts – in fact, their current legal action relates to the second part of the DoT regulations, regarding airline check-in kiosks.

This states that at least 25% of all existing check-in kiosks in an airport must be made accessible to disabled passengers by December 2023, including the display screen, inputs and outputs, instructions and floor space. However this is a timescale which the federation does believe is so long as to be unreasonable.

It claims that offering a compliance period as long as 10 years means that the DoT is failing to implement the ACAA as it was intended, and is therefore breaking the law.

In a statement explaining the decision to take legal action, NFB president Marc Maurer said that the technology to make airline check-in kiosks accessible to visually impaired passengers is “readily available” and is already in use in bank cash machines and other types of kiosk across the US. “The Department of Transportation violated the law by allowing continued discrimination against blind passengers based on spurious assertions by the airline industry that making kiosks accessible will cost too much and take a decade”, Maurer said.

The NFB has also published details of how it says kiosks can be more quickly made accessible in the same way as bank machines and other devices, such as: “affixing Braille labels, installing headphone jacks and adding speech software that provides audio prompts to the user.”

As yet, there has been no word on how – or if – any court action might proceed, or any response from the DoT. But this is not the first time that the NFB have pursued legal action over this issue. In 2011, the charity filed a lawsuit against Las Vegas McCarran International Airport on behalf of four blind passengers, claiming its self-service kiosks were inaccessible due to the visual-only instructions on their screens.

As in so many sectors, website accessibility is also an ongoing issue. In 2012 the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) sued low-cost airline bmibaby.com (now no longer active), claiming that customers with sight-loss were unable to use the company’s website to search for and book flights, as it was only possible to do so using a mouse.

Several months after initiating legal action, RNIB reported that bmibaby.com had made changes to its website which improved its accessibility, enabling visually impaired customers to book flights online, and withdrew its case.

So the new action keeps up the pressure on the airline industry: legal action may not be frequent, but it does keep coming, and organisations representing disabled travellers will continue to push for governments to fully implement their own anti-discrimination laws.

Access to the Internet by Older People and Mobile Tips at Heart of e-Access 13

Access to the internet in homes for the elderly and developing inclusive services on smartphones and tablet computers are among topics on the agenda at e-Access 13, the UK’s leading event on access to technology by people with disabilities.

Delegates will hear about the Connecting Care project, looking at how care homes for older people can make the most of new technology to support their organisation, carers and service users. The project is run by Lasa, a technology support group for charities and public sector bodies, with funding from the Department of Health.

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Web Accessibility: One Million Steps: Boosting Access Awareness, One Website at a Time.

By Robin Christopherson

Recent research shows that the great majority of websites are still failing consistently to comply with even the lowest priority checkpoints of the accessibility guidelines set out by the international web standards body the World Wide Web Consortium. Despite a plethora of initiatives to raise awareness of this issue, from Citizens Online’s ‘Fix the Web’ campaign to Global Accessibility Awareness Day, the situation does not seem to be improving at a significant rate.

Little wonder, therefore, that one in six of us is still reluctant to venture into the online world and not surprising either that around half of those on the wrong side of the digital divide are disabled, and a similar number are aged 65 or over. The scope for mainstream technologies to transform the lives of this sizeable minority seems largely untapped.

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Paralympics Star is this Year’s e-Access Conference Keynote Speaker

GB Paralympics star Hannah Cockroft MBE, winner of two gold medals at the London 2012 Paralympic Games in wheelchair sprint races, is this year’s inspirational keynote speaker at e-Access ‘13, the UK’s leading event on access to technology by people with disabilities.

The event will analyse the ‘Paralympics effect’, focusing on how increased public and media interest in disability after the 2012 Paralympic Games can be used to maximum benefit for accessibility progress. Other speakers include Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative industries Ed Vaizey, who will update delegates on how the government is addressing accessibility; and disability consultant and campaigner Simon Stevens, star of a Channel Four TV comedy show.

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BBC Issues Draft Guidelines for Mobile Accessibility

A draft set of standards and guidelines to make BBC web content and apps more accessible when viewed on mobile devices has been released by the corporation following a year of testing and development.

The Draft BBC Mobile Accessibility Standards and Guidelines were announced in a blog post by Henny Swan, senior accessibility specialist at the BBC. Up to now the BBC’s existing accessibility guidelines have been used as a basis for creating accessible mobile content, Swan says, but it was felt that more specific mobile standards were now needed.

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Practitioners Rally To Defend Web Access Guidelines

Accessibility practitioners have defended the international standard ‘WCAG’ web content accessibility guidelines this month, in the wake of an academic study suggesting they were “ineffective”.

The PhD study by André Pimenta Freire of the University of York, as reported in E-Access Bulletin in May, said adherence to the WCAG guidelines could not resolve many problems on website pages encountered by print-disabled computer users. In a series of responses on the bulletin’s website, however, several practitioners raised objections to points raised in Pimenta Freire’s study.

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Employers ‘Need Support To Make Job Applications Accessible’

Employers need more support to make their digital job application processes accessible to people with disabilities, according to a new report from disability employment services charity Shaw Trust.

The report, ‘Making work a real choice’, examines the government’s disability employment programme Work Choice through the experiences of more than 400 people – a mix of job applicants, employers, and Shaw Trust staff.

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