European Web sites lack accessibility

UK Cabinet Office E-Government Unit

Ninety-seven percent of government Web sites in Europe fail to meet international accessibility standards, according to a new groundbreaking European survey.

The survey, released Nov. 24, indicated that only 3 percent of the 436 public service Web sites conformed to the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which provides 14 general design principles so people with disabilities can see, understand, navigate and interact with Web sites.

Sponsored by the United Kingdom Cabinet Office’s e-Government unit and several other groups, the study surveyed the European Union’s 25 member states and conducted a detailed assessment of the 436 sites using a combination of automated and manual evaluation techniques.

The results indicate a potential problem for more than 39 million disabled persons in the European Union, the study suggests.

“In many countries, being prevented access to online services through poor design is illegal, and in others, it would be considered discriminatory, if this were to occur,” according to the study.

“Many disadvantaged people depend on public services for support (e.g. for various state benefits), but until now have often found it difficult to gain access physically to sources of help and advice,” the study states. “The Web opens up new possibilities that not only benefit individuals greatly but can also make it more efficient for the state to do business with them.”

Authors said the study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time public-sector Web sites have been evaluated this way. They also said a scant number of surveys have been done on e-accessibility, and many of those have been country-specific. But the trend among all the previous research is that accessibility is disappointingly low, according to the new study.

According to the study’s findings:

• 23 governments said they had plans and funding targeted to improve Web accessibility.

• Of those, 12 said they plan to meet their goals by 2008.

• 16 said there is at least “one time of legislation” was introduced that is relevant to e-accessibility.

• Nine said there were practices in place that ranged from applying pressure to legal action if sites did not achieve a specified standard of accessibility.

• 14 provide ongoing monitoring of sites for accessibilities, but methods and reporting vary.

• 11 said they hold Web accessibility training initiatives, which vary in size and scope.

• 15 said there is no local certification or quality program for web accessibility.

But the study states that the news isn’t all bad. Although only 3 percent achieved full compliance with WCAG, the report states that “there are a larger number of sites, which have already made significant progress toward this level of conformance, and which may require only relatively modest enhancement in order to achieve it fully.”

The study outlined 21 recommendations for public policy-makers on the EU and national levels, Web managers and developers, and Web designers in the software industry.

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