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One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back?

Despite rising awareness in the web development community of issues relating to access by people with disabilities, it appears that in one vital sector at least, things may be going backwards.

The 10th annual ‘Better connected’ review of every UK council website from the local government Society of IT Management (Socitm), published this month, has revealed an alarming picture of falling standards.

The number of local authority websites achieving the most basic standard of accessibility – Level ‘A’ of the World Wide Web consortium’s web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG 1.0) – has fallen dramatically this year to just 37 out of 468. This compares with 64 achieving level A the previous year; and 62 the year before that.

The news comes despite the fact that the UK government and the European Commission have actually been encouraging councils to set their standards even higher than level ‘A’, to level ‘AA’ compliance. A ‘Delivering inclusive websites’ consultation launched in 2007 by the Cabinet Office, and due to conclude shortly with some new and eagerly awaited guidelines, suggested that government sites should have until December 2008 to meet AA standards or face having their domain withdrawn.

Many question whether such a Draconian pronouncement would be practical given that in the past four years, only a tiny number of local authority sites have achieved an AA rating: just three in 2006 and two in 2007. In 2008 not a single local authority website reached level AA.

The WCAG standards take into account problems such as those faced by visually impaired web users relying on access to information by converting on-screen text into speech. Examples of ‘checkpoints’ that web developers need to pass include proper text tagging of any images used; and clear layout of text on the screen. The testing methods used by Socitm (and all reputable testers) are twofold. First, some basic ‘stage one’ tests are undertaken using an automatic benchmarking tool – in this case, the RNIB used tools developed by the Swedish company Greytower Technologies.

However, automated testing can only cover a third of the WCAG checkpoints, so ‘stage two’ tests require manual examination to ascertain some of the more complex elements of a site’s compliance. These are the most difficult features to test, and also the hardest for developers to get right. This part of the survey is carried out by specialist consultants from the RNIB, recognised as among the foremost UK experts in the field.

Most accessibility testing failures fall into a small group of categories, including the absence of ‘alternative text’ on images; inaccessible JavaScript; and problematic ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ data tables. Indeed, if website operators fixed two of the most common failures – the lack of ‘alternative text’ tags on images and problems with simple data tables – some 48 more websites would have conformed to level A  standards this year. A further 173 sites (39%) contained just three or four checkpoint failures.

Asked why he thought standards had been allowed to slip, Socitm ‘Better Connected’ project leader Martin Greenwood identified four probable causes. These were low levels of accessibility training for web teams; historic procurement of inaccessible software, with councils now tied into contracts; budget constraints hindering the acquisition of new software; and a failure to include accessibility tests in basic website maintenance procedures.

The report says local authorities of all sizes and types must realise the scale of the task required to bring their site up to level A standard and beyond. In particular, the people involved in running those sites which have achieved and then lost accessible status must look in detail at what has changed and what they need to do to improve. Furthermore, local authorities must increase awareness of website accessibility within the organisation, include those considerations into future website revamps and related procurement and realise that creating accessible websites is an ongoing task.

NOTE: A special supplement to the Better Connected report on website accessibility called ‘A World Denied’ is due to be published by Socitm later this month.


  1. Martin Kliehm | March 16th, 2008 | 3:41 pm

    I don’t think this binary approach passed / failed is helpful. Just because a website failed level A or AA doesn’t necessarily mean it is inaccessible to people with disabilities. Also it would be interesting how badly they failed.

    In Germany people often use the BITV-Test based on our legislation of WCAG. It is a well-documented site with much discussion of how to apply the tests. For a quick check, only three pages of different types are chosen, like the home page, a content page, and a contact form.

    Each criterion is assigned with a severity: major, normal, or minor. Starting with a total of 100 points, for each failed criterion either 3, 2, or 1 points are subtracted, half of the points when a criterion is partially fulfilled. A website is highly accessible when the total is 95 or above, well accessible at 90-94 points, and badly accessible below 90. Also a few checkpoints can change the result into “inaccessible”, no matter what the actual score was. Think of navigational images without alt-text.

    So what we got here is a score that can be benchmarked with other websites, a more precise result how accessible a website is. I think that’s a better approach.

  2. Stuart Harrison | March 19th, 2009 | 3:46 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with Martin. Accessibility has to be seen as more than just a binary pass / fail scenario. Just because a few pages fail on a few minor points doesn’t mean the whole site is inaccessible. Sure, point out the problems so they can be fixed, but don’t brand websites with the label ‘inaccessible’ just because of a few issues.

    And don’t get me started on suppliers. The main problem is that web teams aren’t consulted before deals are entered into and contracts are signed. As a local authority web person, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion being forced to implement systems that I know are inaccessible, but I’ve got no way of blocking their release.

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