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Council Websites: Better Than They Seem?

By Tristan Parker.

At first glance, the accessibility results of this year’s Society of IT Management (Socitm) ‘Better Connected’ review of all UK council websites ( http://bit.ly/dltkU5 ) would suggest that online access to local government for disabled computer users and others using assistive technology is still not a priority.

This year, for example, fewer local authorities achieved level ‘A’ of the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, version one (WCAG 1.0 http://bit.ly/cmbc4g ) than last year – 32 compared with 36 – and for the second year running, no council achieved the more stringent level ‘AA’.

But appearances can be deceptive, and these figures do not tell the whole picture, according to Bim Egan, senior web access consultant at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB: http://bit.ly/a5Jz3i ).

Egan, who carried out assessments for the Better Connected report, told E-Access Bulletin that websites which failed to achieve even the basic WCAG level ‘A’ standard, are not necessarily completely inaccessible to people with disabilities.

WCAG is, by and large, a quantative assessment of various aspects of a site, whereas for the second year running, the RNIB also carried out additional qualitative assessments on council websites to achieve a wider picture of online accessibility. These checked for ‘outcome’ factors such as “whether or not users could navigate, use and communicate with the site relatively easily if they had assistive technology needs or special needs”, Egan says.

These tests used their own 0-3 rating system, with 0 representing a frequent absence of accessibility and 3 representing a site that was functionally fully accessible. Based on this system, 187 councils (43%) were rated by RNIB as satisfactory or excellent, compared with 136 councils (33%) last year.

This seems encouraging, but why is this not reflected in the WCAG 1.0-based system? “We never believed that conformity tests were a real measure of accessibility”, said Egan. “It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it, and conformity tests basically check for things like headings being used, and not how good [the websites] are.”

Overall the findings suggest that council websites have improved their functional accessibility, says Egan, while sometimes embracing new technologies and techniques in such a way that conformity levels with standards have dropped.

So what are these new techniques that have hampered conformance to standards?

Not for the first time, JavaScript – a common programming language used in website pages – is one culprit. The use of JavaScript often leads to increased difficulty in navigating a webpage when using assistive technology or a keyboard, for example providing ‘hidden’ content that may not be picked up by some assistive technologies. Although JavaScript can sometimes actually be used to increase accessibility – by providing additional information to the user, for example – by and large, it is a recurring problem for accessibility conformance.

“The main thing that affects conformity testing for WCAG 1.0 is that a lot more sites are putting in a lot more functionality, and a lot of that functionality is reliant on JavaScript,” says Egan. “If we hadn’t had JavaScript to check, we would have seen quite a considerable improvement in Level A conformance.”

Egan also warns that should the Better Connected website review team adopt WCAG version 2.0 (the latest version of the guidelines) for its assessments next year, further changes will need to be made to ensure that basic standards are met. “If we’re looking at WCAG 2.0, the message is that councils are going to regret putting so much information into PDFs without making them accessible”, she says.

PDFs (files in the ‘portable document format’, used widely by local councils and other public bodies) are often not fully accessible for screen-readers and other assistive technologies. There are ways of creating accessible PDFs using standard accessibility techniques and PDF creation tools that support accessibility, to provide text tags for pictures, for  example, but councils haven’t yet started applying these techniques when  creating PDF files.

“It wouldn’t matter as much if so many councils didn’t rely so heavily on PDF format,” says Egan, “but …if [the PDF is] not accessible, there could be situations where people can’t even find out what their council tax is.”

Despite these concerns, Egan is keen to emphasise the increase in accessibility demonstrated by the RNIB’s qualitative assessments. “This is my fifth year of working on Better Connected and the difference is astonishing. Council websites are much more accessible now than they’ve ever been,” she says.

Perhaps surprisingly, Egan also believes that stronger legislation is not the best way to achieve further improvements, preferring instead to champion those that are succeeding and encourage them to lead by example. “I don’t think more legislation is going to do it” she says. “We’ve had some pretty horrendous threats, like losing the ‘.gov.uk’ domain, and I don’t know what else can be done to encourage sites to become more accessible other than showing by example and rewarding and applauding the ones who do it right. Let’s give more airtime to them, so that the people who’ve got it wrong and their councils are forced to do something about it.”

She urged those who have not achieved good accessibility ratings of any kind so far to rise to the challenge. “Those websites who’ve not achieved WCAG 1.0 or got a rating of 1 or 2 on our own [RNIB] rating system should not feel discouraged – I’d prefer that they felt challenged”, says Egan. “Accessibility isn’t where you’re at, it’s the road you’re following.”

Comments

  1. Mike Gifford | March 26th, 2010 | 5:40 pm

    I tried to add a longer post on this but hit a PHP error. Seems it is working now so wanted to add a link to this post:

    http://openconcept.ca/blog/mgifford/changing_standards_in_government

    I wanted to add that aggressive collaboration is important. It’s not just legislation (the stick) and best practices (the carrot), but means to make it easy for everyone.

    The UK’s done a lot to encourage sharing within the public sector.

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