All aboard

In October 2007 the Central Office of Information (COI) published a document for consultation called “Delivering inclusive websites: web-centred accessibility”. The document was produced in the context of the public sector’s responsibilities to promote disability equality in the full range of its activities. Its content sets out the minimum level of accessibility for government websites and guidance on how to achieve it.
    
The document caused a considerable stir among webmasters in central and local government when it was published. Not because of the guidance, which is clear and practical, or because of its re-iteration that government websites should achieve Level AA of the W3C guidelines for accessibility, which is well known, but rather for its statement that government websites must achieve this compliance by December 2008, or be ‘subject to the withdrawal process for .gov.uk domain names’. Within the same timeframe, the document says all new .gov.uk sites will need to be compliant with level AA before being launched.

The Importance of accessibility
The Society of IT Management (Socitm) is an organisation particularly well placed to comment on the document. As the publisher of the annual “Better connected” survey of all local authority websites, Socitm has championed the cause of accessibility since the second survey in 2000 when sample testing of accessibility was started. Since 2004 Socitm has tested all 468 local authority websites with the support of the RNIB who are leaders in this field.
    
In 2005 Socitm was part of a consortium that undertook the first European-wide survey of the accessibility of public services – “eAccessibility of Public Sector Services in the European Union”, referenced to on the first page of the COI consultation paper. In August 2007 Socitm produced “A world denied: web accessibility the movie”, a 12 minute film featuring interviews with a number of key figures in the world of web accessibility that explains the importance of the topic and the need to invest in accessible websites.
    
Socitm’s response to “Delivering inclusive websites” focussed on the fact that the target set by the COI – level AA by December 2008 - was a great deal to ask for, based on evidence from “Better connected”. The fact that the EU study suggested that UK local authorities were the best performers on accessibility within the European public sector suggests the target will be even more difficult to achieve for other public service organisations.

Sustaining results
The evidence on accessibility from “Better connected” is set out in the figure above. It shows that the numbers of council websites achieving even level A is small, and that there has been little improvement over the last three years, despite high levels of awareness among local authority webmasters of accessibility as an issue.
    
“Better connected” also shows that, over the last two years, only half of those achieving Level A have achieved the same level the following year. In other words, there is a high degree of turnover as councils strive to achieve Level A but then cannot sustain it.
    
Why such disappointing results? Socitm believes that it is not because web teams are unaware of the issue, but rather because accessibility can be very difficult to achieve retrospectively for an established site. Getting commitment to the cost and disruption involved in re-vamping an existing website that otherwise works well, in order to make it accessible, requires senior decision-makers, and not just web teams, to believe that accessibility really matters.

Help at hand
Once this hurdle is overcome, there is at least good advice now available for organisations that are commissioning a new website. In 2006, the British Standards Institute (BSI) published “PAS 78 — Guide to Good Practice in Commissioning Accessible Websites.”
    
This landmark publication brings together all the guidance about accessible website design in one single document and links in with policies and guidance that already exist in the EU. It provides a strong message about the crucial importance of a standards-based approach to web design, and provides clear and unambiguous guidance on commissioning websites.
    
PAS 78 spells out the need for an accessibility policy and what it should include. It makes it quite clear that it is the responsibility of those who commission websites to ensure that an accessibility policy exists and that websites conform to that policy. The advice highlights the vital contribution of user involvement and testing at every stage in the development of a new website.

Keeping up the hard work
Once an accessible website is built, it takes commitment for it to continue as an accessible site. As indicated earlier, Socitm’s research shows that sites that have achieved a level of accessibility one year can easily slip back when tested the following year. Very often this is because content editors are not sufficiently trained in simple procedures like writing accessible links and headlines, and remembering to add ‘alt text’ to images so that screen readers can tell users about the pictures that accompany the text.
    
At the time of writing it is not clear what the outcome of the COI consultation is. However, early indications are that fears about loss of the .gov.uk domain as a result of minor infringements of a dogmatic interpretation of the level AA standards may have been exaggerated.

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