I commented previously on the Public consultation on Delivering Inclusive Websites (TG102) which proposed that “all government websites must meet Level Double-A of the W3C guidelines by December 2009“. It seems that this proposal has now been implemented. Some may feel that this is to be welcomed, but as I have argued previously, mandating use of a dated set of Web accessibility guidelines which have been shown to be flawed will, I believe, be counter-productive. And judging by an article by Julie Howell (formerly of the RNIB and currently Director of Accessibility at Fortune Cookie and chair of the British Standards Institution’s committee on web accessibility) entitled Web Accessibility. Life In the Post-Guideline Age I don’t think I’m alone in my views.
The Delivering inclusive websites document (issued on 12 June 2008) states that:
- The minimum level of accessibility for all Government websites is Level Double-A of the W3C guidelines. All new websites must conform to these guidelines from the point of publication.
- Websites owned by central government departments must be Double-A conformant by December 2009. This includes websites due to converge on Directgov or BusinessLink, unless convergence is scheduled before this date.
That’s right – if Government Web sites don’t achieve WCAG AA compliance by December 2009, their domain name may be withdrawn. That’s bound to enhance the accessibility of the service, isn’t it?
I wondered about the accessibility of the 10 Downing Street Web site. Putting this through a HTML validator I find mutiple validation errors. And as HTML compliance is mandatory (in WCAG 1.0), this means that the Web site fails to pass the Government minimum standards for accessibility. And if this is still the case in December, the No 10 Downing Street Web site will be forced to shut down – with processes for shutting down Government Web sites have already been documented (in MS Word and PDF formats).
Coincidentally (or perhaps not) the accessibility auditing company SiteMorse have just published a Website Survey June 2008 – UK Central Government report. This survey (based on SiteMorse’s automated accessibility checking tool) reports that only 11.3% of the government Web sites surveyed pass the WCAG AA tests which their automated software can detect! A table showing the rankings of Government Web sites for a range of criteria including accessibility is available on the SiteMorse Web site and the Top 11 Web sites, which comply with WCAG AA according to the automated test are shown (there is one other Web site, labelled as ‘London Councils’ which passes the automated accessibility compliance test).
Will we see a drastic pruning of the Central Government Web sites which aren’t included in the table at the start of the 2009? Or will we see vast amounts of tax-payer’s money being spend on ensuring that the Web sites manage to pass the automated tests? Or perhaps we’ll simply see a withdrawal of the services.
What we can’t say is that the Web sites which fail the automated tests are necessarily inaccessible to people with disabilities. And we also can’t say that the Web sites which pass the automated tests are necessarily accessible to people with disabilities. This approach is all about passing artificial benchmarks, not addressing the needs of citizens with disabilities.
An unfortunate aspect of this new policy is that when the JISC TechDis Service together with UKOLN organised the Accessibility Summit II event on A User-Focussed Approach to Web Accessibility we ensured that as well as inviting accessibility researchers and representatives form the disability community (including Kevin Carey founder of HumanITy and Robin Christoperson, head of Accessibility Services, AbilityNet) we also invited a representative form the central Government. The participants at the meeting agreed on the need “to call on the public sector to rethink policy and guidelines on accessibility of the web to people with a disability“. As David Sloan, Research Assistant at the School of Computing at the University of Dundee and co-founder of the summit reported in a article published in the E-Government Bulletin “the meeting unanimously agreed the WCAG were inadequate“.
What is to be done? The cynic, disillusioned by the current Government, might relish the embarrassment Gordon Brown and his Cabinet colleagues may face when the implications of this decision become more widely known. And we can expect opposition Shadow Cabinet Ministers and papers such as the Daily Mail using this as an opportunity to undermine the Government, with initial questions of “Will the minister explain why almost 90% of Government Web sites can’t be accessed by people with disabilities?” to be followed by “Will the minister give the costs of changing Government Web sites to comply with WCAG accessibility standards which are now obsolete?” or “Will the minister explain why the Government has caved in to European demands to implement a set of politically-correct guidelines which researchers have shown to be flawed?”“. And if the Government does carry out its promise to shut down non-compliance Web sites: “Why has the Government shut down its Web sites? This is political correctness gone mad“.
But to take satisfaction in such embarrassment is to miss the point. Implementation of this policy is likely to result in a deterioration of the quality of Government services to all:-)