Disabled web access being ignored, reports DRC

Out-Law News | 14 Apr 2004 | 12:00 am | 6 min. read

A study of 1,000 web sites across the UK today revealed not only that most organisations breach guidelines on making sites accessible to disabled users and risk legal action under disability discrimination laws, but that the guidelines themselves may be inadequate.

Since March 2003, the Disability Rights Commission and the Centre for Human Computer Interaction at London's City University have been testing sites in the public and private sectors for technical compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

The Disability Rights Commission, or 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 people, the DRC is empowered by law to conduct formal investigations which meet these aims.

Of the 1,000 sites tested, 808 (81%) failed on automated testing to reach the minimum standard for accessibility, known as Level A. But that does not mean that 19% achieved the minimum standard; in fact, the likely level of accessibility is much worse.

The testing of the full sample involved running commercially-available software against each of the 1,000 sites. Such tests can determine whether, for example, an image on a web site is accompanied by a so-called ALT tag – a text alternative that describes the image for the benefit of those using assistive technologies such as screen readers. However, only a manual test can determine whether that ALT tag actually makes sense – e.g. an image of a dog might be mislabelled "cat".

Only 100 of the sites tested were subjected to additional manual tests by a disabled user group comprising individuals with dexterity impairments, dyslexia, hearing impairments, blindness or partial sight.

Other than a failure to describe images, the disabled user group found other common problems: cluttered and complex page structures; confusing and disorienting navigation mechanisms; failure to describe images; inappropriate use of colours and poor contrast between content and background.

In total, the disabled user group identified 585 accessibility and usability problems; but nearly half of these (45%) were not violations of any of the WCAG's 65 checkpoints – meaning that they could be present on any web site which conformed to WCAG guidelines at any level.

The research found an average of eight instances of the World Wide Web Consortium's guidelines being violated per homepage; but it also found that on average there were 108 potential instances on the typical homepage where a disabled person might be disadvantaged in his or her use of a site.

Only two web sites out of 1,000 were Level AA compliant (from a total of six that appeared to meet the Level AA standard in the automated tests) and no web site achieved the highest (AAA) level of conformance.

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.

The legal obligation

The Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 states that it is unlawful for "a provider of services" to discriminate against a disabled person in failing to comply with its provisions. At first, there was some ambiguity because the wording of the Act did not specifically mention on-line services – but the consensus has long been that it could be applied to web sites.

Any ambiguity was removed by the DRC's publication in 2002 of a Code of Practice which clarified that businesses should make their web sites accessible to those with disabilities such as hearing or visual impairments.

Ignorance among developers

The investigation also found high levels of ignorance among web developers on both the steps needed and the costs of making their web sites accessible for disabled people.

Researchers canvassed the views of nearly 400 web site developers. The investigation found that levels of accessibility expertise amongst web developers was low with only 9% claiming any accessibility expertise. Only 9% of developers had used disabled people to test their sites.

Among those who commission web sites, the DRC found that 97% of large organisations (more than 250 employees) were aware of accessibility as an important issue, and 88% were aware of their responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act. But among SMEs, awareness of accessibility as an important issue dropped to 69% and only 48% reported awareness of the legal duty.

Chris Rourke of usability and accessibility specialists User Vision said the findings reveal why inaccessible sites come about. "In addition to the expected conclusion that most sites fail to achieve even the basic (Level A) level of accessibility," commented Rourke, "it shows that the misconceptions from those who commission sites often cause the issue to not be considered."

He continued: "From their discussions with web site commissioners and web site development agencies, it appears as if the subject is discussed but then dropped, often in pursuit of creative or aesthetic goals. However, to a disabled user, an inaccessible web site is very ugly indeed. Businesses are willingly losing the business of these users as well as risking legal action and PR problems."

The DRC is appealing to developers to involve disabled users with a range of sensory, cognitive and mobility impairments from an early stage in the design process, and asking that they do not rely exclusively on automatic testing software. It recommended that web site commissioners should formulate written policies for meeting the needs of disabled people.

Problems with WCAG

Version 1.0 of the current Web Accessibility Initiative WCAG came out in May 1999. Version 2.0 is currently a working draft. City University conducted its research with reference to Version 1.0 and called for the WAI to revise its guidelines to encourage a reduction in the number of links on a site and to ensure that genuine and necessary links are clearly identified as such, to preserve links to the homepage, to improve search design, to eradicate excessively deep site structures, and to ensure that page titles are informative.

City University also called for elevated prioritisation of the need to ensure that foreground and background colours have sufficient contrast, the need to identify the target of each link, and the need to ensure that pages work when scripts and applets are not supported.

Lawsuits?

The DRC has decided against "naming and shaming" on this occasion. However, it made clear that it finds the current state of web accessibility to be "unacceptable".

The DRC explained:

"Our report contains a range of recommendations to help web site owners and developers tackle the barriers to inclusive design. However, where the response is inadequate, the DRC will not hesitate to use its legal powers – from 'named-party' Formal Investigations which can lead to sanctions against the owners of inaccessible web sites, to support for test cases brought by individual disabled people – to ensure the web becomes fully inclusive to disabled users."

DRC Chairman Bert Massie added: "The situation revealed by this investigation is unacceptable but not inevitable. The DRC is determined to ensure that this powerful new technology does not leave disabled people behind."

He continued:

"There has to be a change in approach at the heart of the internet industry and web site developers must involve disabled users from an early stage in the design process. Existing best practice initiatives such as the guidelines set down by the World Wide Web Consortium are valuable here, but as our investigation has shown, not enough to ensure genuine access to disabled users."

Massie said that raising the skills and understanding of web access by promoting a formal qualification for web designers and developers "is now an essential requirement."

Helen Petrie, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at City University, said:

"In addition to better use of the Guidelines, the most effective thing web developers can do is involve disabled users in testing their web sites. This will not only improve accessibility but also usability for everyone – non disabled users were almost 50% slower when using low accessibility web sites in comparison to high accessibility sites."

Dr Jon Dodd of usability and accessibility specialists Bunnyfoot Universality welcomed the idea of a formal accreditation process. But he warned that this "must not be a technical specification."

Dodd explained: "it should involve actual use testing by real and representative people, including those with disabilities. The results of the DRC investigation support our experience that mere adherence to technical accessibility guidelines does not produce sites that actually work in practice."

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