UK finds Web accessibility lacking

"The Web: Access and Inclusion for Disabled People"

A new report says Web site accessibility is as much of a problem in the United Kingdom as in the United States, with the majority of British government sites failing to satisfy basic standards for making online information and services available to people with disabilities.

The United Kingdom's Disability Rights Commission investigated 1,000 public sector Web sites over the last year. The commission used the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as the basis for its measurements. Using the W3C standards — which outline three conformance levels — and working with the Center for Human Computer Interaction Design at London's City University, the commission found that 81 percent of U.K. Web sites fail to satisfy the most basic level.

That initial "unacceptable" finding led to another: that developing an accessible site requires more than using standard guidelines and automated tools to test compliance.

"There can be no substitute for involving disabled people themselves in design and testing," the report states.

"The Web has been around for 10 years, yet within this short space of time it has managed to throw up the same hurdles to access and participation by disabled people as the physical world," said Bert Massie, the commission's chairman, last week at the release of the report. "But it is an environment that could be made more accommodating to disabled people at a relatively modest expense."

The commission's recommendations stretched across both the public and private sector, but several specifically for the government include:

Raise awareness in the public and private sector of accessibility needs.

Collect data on the types of problems disabled people experience with Web site accessibility.

Promote research into the costs and benefits of designing and testing accessible sites.

Help develop best practice guidance that includes the input of disabled users throughout the development cycle.

Promote a formal accessibility accreditation process and registry for Web site designers.

General awareness of existing resources is also a problem, the commission found. Many users are unaware of the accessibility features in commercial software and operating systems, and those that do use those features often can't access advice on which will best suit their needs.

Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom has no law specifically governing Web site accessibility, but the country's Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 does apply to the Internet. Also, the EuroAccessibility Consortium is working on an initiative to foster Web site accessibility.

In the United States, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that all federal Web sites be accessible.

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