Disabled surfers suffer
A yearlong investigation by the Disability Rights Commission shows that most websites are unusable by disabled people, and risk legal action under disability discrimination laws.
The DRC is an independent statutory body responsible for advising Government on the effectiveness of disability discrimination legislation.
Representing the interests of Britain's 8.6 million disabled, the DRC is empowered by law to conduct formal investigations that meet these aims.
A thousand public and private sector websites were tested for the survey using automated software, and 100 of those were subjected to detailed user testing, for technical compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Of the thousand public websites tested by City University's Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design, 81% failed to meet the basic accessibility criteria laid down by the Web Accessibility Initiative, the international standard in this area.
And not a single page tested was fully compliant up to the maximum accessibility level, known as AAA. Only two met the lower AA standard.
The Web Accessibility Initiative has a set of guidelines for authoring tools, most of which seem pretty straightforward - for example, a tool should prompt the author to provide equivalent alternative information for pictures or multimedia elements instead of leaving it up to the author to remember.
Yet these guidelines are not widely publicised and people do not ask whether the programs they use conform to them.
The worst affected group were those with visual impairments.
Bert Massie, DRC Chairman described the situation as "unacceptable", and said the organisation was determined not to allow disabled people to be left behind by technology.
The problems most commonly encountered by the disabled website testers were cluttered pages, confusing navigation, failure to describe images and poor colour contrast between background and text.
Researchers at London's City University, who carried out the study for the DRC, also found that many web developers were ignorant of what needed to be done to make sites accessible.
Welcoming the report, the Royal National Institute of the Blind said there was a clear need for government to raise awareness of the issue.
Announcing the findings, the DRC warned that "swathes of businesses may not be complying with existing equal access laws" and that it is "only a matter of time" before they face legal action from disabled consumers.
"Businesses have a social responsibility as well as a legal duty to ensure that disabled people can use their websites," said Julie Howell, RNIB spokesperson.
There are signs that some website owners are getting the accessibility message.
City University has revealed five "examples of excellence" from its study:
· egg.com (Internet bank)
· oxfam.org.uk (charity)
· sisonline.org (spinal injuries voluntary organisation)
· copac.ac.uk (on-line catalogues of research libraries)
· whoohoo.co.uk (comedy dialect translator)
Helen Petrie, Professor of Human Computer Interaction Design at City University, said: “The Spinal Injuries Scotland site highlights how an accessible website can be created on a small budget and still be lively and colourful."
"Additionally, Egg’s site shows larger firms can embrace accessibility without compromising their corporate image or losing any sophistication from their e-services.”
Sources: BBC Online, The Disability Rights Commission, The Register
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