Web Accessibility: Supporting People with Disabilities

By Dr Scott Hollier
Braille Tablet

By Dr Scott Hollier. This article is part of our October focus on Disability Rights.

The Australian Government has been working hard over the past two years to ensure that all federal and most state government websites meet the minimal Level “A” requirement of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 by the end of this year. With only a couple of months to go, it’s a good time to reflect on the progress and the potential impact that this process could have for people with disabilities.

Why is web accessibility so important, how does it help people with disabilities and what is this WCAG 2.0 thing anyway? Let’s start with how people with disabilities use computers and the internet.

An introduction to web accessibility

According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), web accessibility is all about supporting people with disabilities to use the internet. More specifically, web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, interact with, and contribute to the internet. Web accessibility also benefits older people with changing abilities due to ageing.

There are two sides of the coin when it comes to helping people with disabilities get online: ensuring that people with disabilities have access to technologies that can help them use the web, and that web pages work with those technologies.

For example, a person who is blind may use screen reader software to have web content read out to them using a computerised voice; a person with a hearing impairment may rely on captions to understand videos; and a person with a mobility impairment may use an onscreen keyboard. While most computers and mobile devices now come with these features either built-in or freely available to download, such products will only work if websites are built in a particular way. For example, a screen reader cannot read out content to help a blind person if there is no alternative text on images, a hearing impaired person cannot enjoy YouTube clips if there are no captions, and navigation for a person with mobility impairment becomes tricky if the layout of a webpage isn’t intuitive.

With 18.5 per cent of the Australian population having some form of disability, that’s about four million people that may have trouble if online information isn’t accessible.

Released in 2008, WCAG 2.0 consists of 12 guidelines, including making sure that images have alternative text, videos have captions, and that websites are easy to navigate and understand to prevent people from making mistakes. These guidelines were divided up into three levels, with “A” being the essential things to do, “AA” being other important things to do and “AAA” being best practice.

The Australian Government and the National Transition Strategy

In February 2010, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation and the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services issued a media release endorsing WCAG 2.0, with the formal release of the National Transition Strategy (NTS) on 30 June 2010. This was fantastic news. Not only did the federal government make WCAG 2.0 a mandatory requirement federal, state and territory websites, it prescribed specific timeframes for implementation, being Level “A” by the end of 2012, and Level “AA” by the end of 2014. Complete details of Australia’s accessibility position can be found in the Australian Government’s accessibility requirements.

The importance of the decision

There are many reasons why accessibility advocates encourage WCAG 2.0 to be included in government policy and legislative frameworks, and also a few reasons why there can be reluctance.

Possibly the best argument is a moral one: the government has a duty to provide access to information and services for the general public, and with 18.5 per cent of the Australian population having some form of disability, that’s about four million people that may have trouble if online information isn’t accessible.

Another growing argument revolves around education and employment: there is a notably high level of unemployment among people with disabilities. If public education institutions can deliver accessible online learning materials then education standards can improve and provide more opportunities for employment. Another strong but less encouraging motivation is the threat of litigation if someone cannot access a government service online.

From a government’s point of view, it’s not always as easy as just saying “yes” to WCAG 2.0. One of the pitfalls of accessibility is that if a website has to be retrofitted with accessibility, it can be very expensive and time consuming. However, if the standard is incorporated during the planning of a website, it’s relatively inexpensive as the techniques happen as part of daily work practices. Hence, the NTS announcement by the Australian Government was not only a moral victory but also an acknowledgement that either new websites would need to be built or some money would need to be spent fixing existing ones.

Delivering the NTS

After a slow start to embracing accessibility through the 1990s and 2000s, it seemed that by mid-2010 the government had moved away from its ad-hoc, state-based approach to accessibility and gone with a uniform federal initiative to take accessibility seriously. The initiative was set, all of government appeared to agree with the NTS and a Community of Expertise discussion portal was established for community engagement. These initiatives, combined with a realistic two-and-a-half year implementation plan for Level “A”, made it seem like things were off to a good start.

While the initiative caught many people who work in the accessibility area by surprise, it appeared to do the same to the State and Territory governments. While the initial NTS media release and website postings suggested that all the States and Territories had agreed to the federal government timeframes, one-by-one they released their own interpretations over the next year or so.

Many states ultimately decided to follow the federal model, but Queensland decided to implement all of WCAG 2.0 except for some of the harder parts (such as providing audio description on pre-recorded videos), and Western Australia decided to take an extra year to determine their position. Governments also differ on whether or not Level “AA” is mandatory.

Progress? Some questions to ask

With only a short time to go until the first NTS deadline, it’s been interesting to hear from consumers and ICT professionals alike about the NTS and the different views on its progress. There are two common statements that keep emerging. The consumers’ question is: “Where’s the evidence that the NTS is making a difference to the accessibility of government information?” ICT professionals say: “We’re working hard on this and making headway, but will there be an opportunity to address our concerns?”

So, with these two significantly different perspectives in mind, a few questions need to be asked:

  • Are there government websites out there that can demonstrate the NTS in action?
  • How likely is it that by the end of 2012 all the websites will be accessible, and
  • What are the concerns that ICT professionals want to raise?

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that change is happening. Government websites such as seniors.gov.au and IP Australia are two good examples of how the NTS is having an impact. Other projects which are not necessarily related to accessibility, such as the amalgamation of the Centrelink website into the Department of Human Services, will almost certainly see an improvement in accessibility as a result of the NTS.

While there are some encouraging signs for consumers that change is occurring, and the change presumably will become more obvious by the end of 2012, it is concerning that there aren’t more obvious examples of accessible government websites.

Perhaps this apparent lack of accessible government websites ties in with the concerns of ICT professionals working on government web projects. Based on conversations with designers and developers, there is no doubt there are many accessibility champions working very hard under difficult conditions to try and meet the guidelines of the NTS, but there are also a number of concerns.

The first concern is summed up in the statement: “I am an accessibility island in my department”. Several people who work in government and have a passion for accessibility have expressed difficulties in getting accessibility procedures established. Rather than have department-wide accessibility procedures, one or two people are designated as the “go to” staff when it comes to WCAG 2.0 implementation. These people are usually given enough authority to address particular accessibility issues, but not enough to achieve broad organisational change. As a result, they end up “putting out fires” rather than changing the system.

Second is the issue of “producers versus developers”. This is partly due to the “accessibility island” problem. Developers complain about how they do a lot of work to make their website templates accessible, only to have content process make accessibility errors and ruin them. Likewise, content producers complain that they do all the right things but they are posting their documents onto an inaccessible website. This appears to be another case where organisation-wide procedural changes could really help.

The third issue revolves around legacy and out-dated technologies. Many web professionals have expressed frustration over being unable to make use of modern web accessibility standards because internally older web standards are required for backwards compatibility. A common complaint is that Internet Explorer 6 is still in use due to compatibility requirements of third-party applications, and any web development work, whether internal or external, must maintain compatibility with this web browser. Another legacy issue revolves around old scanned PDFs that are still important enough to keep, but not important enough to justify someone’s time to go through them and make them accessible.

The next issue is time. As previously discussed, it took longer for the States and Territories to get going on the NTS, and those that did commit to the same timeframes as the federal government have commented that it will be hard to meet the end-of-year deadline.

Finally, there’s the issue of auditing. Given the limited human resources, people have reported that it’s challenging to get accurate information about exactly how accessible the current website is and what steps need to be taken to address it. Enterprise-based auditing software that isn’t prohibitively expensive is often sought to find ways in addressing the issue. This is likely to become more of an issue as auditing reports are provided regarding the progress of the transition.

… they end up “putting out fires” rather than changing the system.

Clearly these issues are concerning but with less than three months to go, there’s still time to undertake changes that can make a big difference to the NTS implementation. Such possibilities include:

  • More people: most of these issues can be resolved by either training ICT professionals with accessibility knowledge or by bringing in accessibility specialists. Ensuring more people have the ability to improve accessibility-based procedures will ultimately bring a cohesive work environment where accessibility just happens.
  • Upgrade internal infrastructure and adopt current web standards: while being sympathetic to the situation of not wanting to upgrade an expensive third-party application, forcing users to stay with Internet Explorer 6 may be more costly in the long run. An 11-year-old web browser is well past its use by date and it’s important that ICT professionals are given the freedom to develop and design in keeping with the latest web accessibility standards.
  • Increase access to resources: government departments could ensure that more staff have time and access to accessibility-related resources such as those available on this website.

So at this stage, is it likely that every federal and state government website will comply with WCAG 2.0 Level “A” by the end of the year? In all honesty, it’s a pretty big ask.

Access iQ™ is optimistic that if the concerns of people working at the coalface of the NTS are addressed, an obvious and significant improvement to the accessibility of government information will occur by the end of the year.

Dr Scott Hollier represents Access iQ parent company Media Access Australia on the W3C Advisory Committee and publishes the W3C column monthly.