April 20, 2004 10:27 AM PDT

Sites for the disabled flunk access tests

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More than half of Web sites run by disability organizations are failing to pass accessibility tests, according to a survey--meaning they cannot be used by some of the very people that they aim to support.

Last week, leading e-commerce Web sites were pointed out by the U.K.'s independent Disabled Rights Commission for failing accessibility tests. However, many members of the online community may well be more surprised by the findings of the Disability 50 survey conducted by communications consultancy Ethical Media.

Ethical Media tested 50 leading disability Web sites against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) set out by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The guidelines were established to ensure that people with disabilities, such as those with visual impairments, would still be able to access the Internet.

While such organizations are meant to follow the same rules as the majority of e-commerce sites, it could be argued they have a greater moral obligation to comply with these standards. Yet 58 percent failed to achieve the W3C's compulsory compliance level, the Ethical Media study found.

While these sites are clearly not meeting the needs of their users, they are also failing in the important role of leading by example, according to Paul Sternberg, the managing director of Ethical Media.

Sternberg said those organizations that fail to achieve basic compliance also risk serious damage to their reputations and risk undermining their own good causes.

However, Struan Robertson, an associate solicitor at information technology law firm Masons, said a major difference between sites aimed at the disabled and the e-commerce sites exposed last week is funding.

"Financial resources would have to be taken into consideration," he said. "The Disabled Rights Commission itself has stated that financial resources will be a factor in determining what changes should be made to a site."

If a disability organization's Web site received a complaint, Robertson believes a court would be unlikely to decide it had the necessary financial resources available to create high-level accessibility functionality for its site and that the organization was therefore remiss for not doing so.

A number of sites, including AbilityNet, Action for Blind People, the British Council for Disabled People and the Disability Rights Commission were singled out for praise by Ethical Media.


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Time for a Reality Check
As a blind person who surfs the web daily for news, shopping, banking and more, I find myself becoming increasingly frustrated and alarmed by talk that 80% of web sites are not truly accessible, or that many sites for the disabled fail W3C standards.

There are certainly some sites that are problematic, but the rules are quite simple. Using ALT text on all links would be the major thing to remember.

The problem I have with the W3C is that it seems to want to keep technology in some sort of time freeze. That's not realistic. If so many sites for the disabled are failing the W3C guidelines, than that's in indictment on the ridiculously strict standards, not on the sites. Disabled people must keep their screen readers up-to-date, just as the rest of the world must keep their software up-to-date. And when we do that, features like frames and tables, things that aren't recommended, actually become of real value. In my view, the US standards attached to section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act are far more realistic and reasonable. The W3C, frankly, needs to get a grip. Constant talk about complex guidelines puts well-intentioned web designers off making the simple changes required because it's all made to seem too complicated. Further, this constant talk of so many web sites being unuseable points to an issue of training in the main, not of inaccessibility.

Let me be clear, the Web is not a perfect place for the disabled and much more can be done. But I fear vested interests are making the problem appear far more dire than it actually is. Web designers, just please use those ALT tags and you'll be helping us a lot.
Posted by (1 comment )
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ALT text on all links
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.analogstereo.com/suzuki_vitara_owners_manual.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.analogstereo.com/suzuki_vitara_owners_manual.htm</a>
Posted by George Cole (314 comments )
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Shame the DRC's report can't be read by disabled people
Perhaps the DRC should follow its own advice. A quick accessibility check in Acrobat 6 Professional of the PDF version of the DRC report found that the report iself isn't accessible to people with disabilities. In the "Easy Read Summary" PDF of the report the document is not XML structured, has no specified language, and all 17 images are missing alternative text--so the vision impaired know they're missing some of the content, but have no idea what it is.

The full report, though it contains no images, is even worse. Again, no language is specified, 120 words are inaccessible because they contain no reliable Unicode mapping, and the document is unstructured.

The original report on Silicon.com characterizes the inability of the disabled and elderly, those whom it says have the most to gain from the internet, to use much of the internet's services as "the bitterest irony." While I certainly don't seek to demean either the lack of accessible content for the disabled and blind or Silicon.com's report, the bitterest irony is actually the fact that an agency tasked with enforcing the rights of the disabled and with producing "publications on rights and good practice for disabled people, employers and service providers" can't even create publications accessible by disabled people.

Before the Disability Rights Commission threatens suit against too many companies and designers, perhaps it should wipe the egg off its face. Glass houses are a real pain for the vision-impaired to navigate.

- <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.iampariah.com/blog/archives/000360.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.iampariah.com/blog/archives/000360.html</a>
- <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://magazinedesign.weblogsinc.com/" target="_newWindow">http://magazinedesign.weblogsinc.com/</a>
- <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://nanopublishing.weblogsinc.com/entry/3239236368168881/" target="_newWindow">http://nanopublishing.weblogsinc.com/entry/3239236368168881/</a>
Posted by Pariah S. Burke (7 comments )
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