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that government sites should have until December 2008 to meet AA standards or face having their .gov.uk domain withdrawn.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.
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.