Sunday, April 06, 2003

Enabling access to websites

The Disability Rights Commission is planning a review of 1,000 websites to measure their accessibility. Details are scant, but the plan is to complete by the end of the year - I hope that means several dot releases between now and then, rather than a bulk release. Stefan, he of upmystreet and whitelabel, has commented on this recently and, ignoring the arrogance of his own style (all this clue and will stuff is boring already), makes some good points. My worry is that the standards that need to be adhered to are not fully understood, in either the public or private sectors. It's one thing to say "be accessible", quite another to turn a random 50,000 pages of HTML in a .gov.uk domain into whatever that might be. Few government websites deserve to score well in this survey. Few are readily accessible to the 6 out of 7 without a disability, so the 1 out of 7 are certainly going to be out of luck in many cases. It is going to take a few beacons to stand out so that others can gravitate towards them (moths to a flame?). But let's be clear what the standards are first (and this is not meant to be exhaustive): - There's no such thing as a "separate easy access site" - ukonline has one of these right now, it soon won't - Fonts and colours must be easy to change, by the user directly if possible using their own style sheets (that pretty much rules out HTML sites) - Screen readers must be able to navigate consistently - so that means changing navigation style at different layers is out - Writing must be clear and simple (Stefan has also pointed out the there is a world of difference between "it's" and "it is" for a screen reader) - Graphics must have alt-tags (the easiest thing to do) Given that government has limited propensity for joining up its services online, there is a huge risk here that one site in the chain lets the others down - if you start at ukonline but quickly get thrown to some other site (naming no names) and your experience is broken, what do you do? Applying these standards (plus others that relate to use of video, avatars that might do auto-sign language for the deaf and so on) is going to be a headache unless the act is got together pronto. The issues are big ... 2.4 million odd pages of content spread over 1,800 sites. Few sites are available in any language other than English (a few in Welsh), but colleagues in Camden tell me that there are 300 languages in their borough alone. Accessibility, multi-language, usability ... none of them things that are excelled at right now. There is something on the distant horizon that might help government though, the Cybrarian project which is due to enter proof of concept soon. It's been rumbling for a while so I don't hold out the highest hope, but if it get's there and does the right thing it will be an important part of the migration. There's a lot more to be found on accessibility, but one of the better pieces is here, at the "Making Connections Unit" website.

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