Onetel rated as best UK telco for web accessibility

Out-Law News | 10 Aug 2005 | 2:35 pm | 3 min. read

Onetel is the best in its class for usability and accessibility on an e-commerce website, according to AbilityNet. The national computing and disability charity tested 10 telco websites and, unlike previous studies, it rated two sites in the telco market highly.

Both Onetel and Kingston Communications were awarded four out of five stars following its evaluation by automated and manual checks. Onetel wins in Abilitynet's view because it offers e-commerce, compared to Kingston's information-only pages.

BT's site was the only one to achieve three stars – which AbilityNet's regards as the minimum standard required to meet the needs of visitors with a vision impairment, dyslexia or a physical problem making mouse use difficult.Advert: Accessible Design in the Digital World Conference, Dundee, Scotland, 23 to 25 August 2005

Six sites had a two star rating and one site, that of 3, achieved only a one star rating.

All the sites reviewed were invited to make a public commitment to accessibility and to date, only Vodafone, Kingston Communications, Onetel, Telewest and O2 have done so.

The remaining five sites – BT, NTL, Orange, 3 and T Mobile – did not respond.

Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet's Web Consultancy Manager, himself blind, said:

"We are delighted with Onetel's score although not totally surprised since we have been accessibility advisors to their website provider, Centrica, for some time a fact we were unaware of until receiving Onetel's statement."

Under the UK's Disability Discrimination Act, new websites should be accessible and usable for disabled users; and reasonable steps should be taken to make existing sites accessible and usable.

The Act has a wide definition of disabled person although not everyone who suffers from dyslexia will be protected by it. Nonetheless, new tools are appearing to better accommodate dyslexic web users. The website of the British Dyslexia Association this month added the Textic toolbar to its website.

According to Christopherson: "For the millions of people with a disability or dyslexia the goods and services provided by the organisations featured in our report provide a lifeline – a prerequisite for both independent living and security. Whilst no site would knowingly impose a 'technological lock-out' on its disabled visitors, it is clear that there is still much scope for improvement for many of the sites reviewed in this survey."

He added that many of the special promotions offering online customers specific packages of goods or services are particularly inaccessible. "This means that disabled people are disadvantaged in a very tangible way as they are unable to benefit from the money-saving deals enjoyed by their 'able-bodied' friends," he said.

Same old problems

Christopherson and his team encountered the same problems as in previous studies.

Text size on some sites, particularly for headings and links, is 'hard-coded' so that it cannot be easily enlarged – so vital for many visitors who have a vision impairment or dyslexia. With some sites offering small text and others carrying a watermark, effective access for this group is made very difficult.

The text labels attached to images upon which blind visitors and text browser users rely for an explanation are often uninformative or completely absent. Without these spoken labels on graphical links, navigation for a blind visitor is pure guesswork. "Imagine trying to drive to your destination where exits at each junction are left blank," said Christopherson.

Pictures of text are often used instead of actual text. This not only means that the user cannot modify the text size or colour contrast – essential for those with a vision impairment or dyslexia – it also prevents screen reader users from reading the content when these images are left unlabelled.

Some sites contain adverts and features made up of moving images that will be distracting for visitors with a cognitive impairment, or interactive presentations known as 'Flash Movies' which can present access problems for visitors who cannot use a mouse, are vision impaired or who use speech output or voice recognition software.

Some of the sites are reliant on mini programs embedded in the page called JavaScript. People using older browsers, those with vision impairments using some special browsers and users whose organisations disable JavaScript for security reasons, will not be able to access the sites fully – links to the main sections do not appear or the search and shopping cart facilities do not operate fully.

All inaccessible sites exclude a hugely valuable potential market comprising an estimated 2 million vision impaired users, 1.5 million with cognitive difficulties, a further 3.4 million with disabilities preventing them from using the standard keyboard, screen and mouse set-up with ease, around 6 million with dyslexia and many millions with literacy difficulties, not to mention the increasing number of elderly 'silver surfers' with failing eyesight or arthritis.

These potential internet users also represent a spending power in excess of £120 billion, according to AbilityNet.

Christopherson concluded:  "When we visit a website we are seeking critical functionality – namely speed and efficiency – not a life-changing experience. Accessible sites are simply easier and more intuitive to use: they improve productivity for everyone."