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Public sector websites fail accessibility tests

Just 3% of 436 public sector websites achieve a minimum standard of accessibility, according to a report published by the UK Cabinet Office on Thursday. No website met the standard demanded by a European Parliament Resolution of 2002.

The Resolution called for public websites to become Level AA accessible, a reference to the best known benchmark, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The Resolution states that, "for websites to be accessible, it is essential that they are double-A compliant." Three years on, not a single website achieved this rating in the largest study of its kind.

The research was carried out by AbilityNet, Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), Dublin City University and the Society for Information Technology Management (Socitm). The reasons for failure are no different to similar studies of private sector websites, such as text alternatives missing from images and navigation that becomes impossible for anyone unable to use a mouse.

Three sites were praised as examples of good practice: Spain Social Security Administration, UK Department of Health and European Central Bank. No other sites were identified in the report.

The study also compared national policies on "eAccessibility." It found incentives for accessibility – legal or otherwise – in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Malta and the UK. But it seems the incentives are not working.

The report was commissioned for the UK Presidency of the EU. Its recommendations include setting "a clear target for making all public sector websites in the EU conform with WCAG 1.0 Level Double-A by 2010 as part of the i2010 strategy to promote an inclusive European information society."

The Parliament Resolution of June 2002 included a request to the European Commission to inform the Parliament about progress made by the Member States and European institutions in applying WGAG Version 1.0 by the end of that year. Clearly any such progress report would have little to celebrate, even now.

Other recommendations in the publication include ensuring that EU public procurement policy builds applicable W3C WAI guidance requirements into all procurements of new website designs, major upgrades, and all outsourced content production (such as reports, publications, etc). The European Commission proposed changing public procurement rules in this way in September, indicating that it might happen by the end of 2005.

The Cabinet Office report also urges web managers and developers in all public sector organisations to get existing sites up to Level A by the end of 2006 and to achieve Level AA by end of 2008. Meanwhile, web designers in the private sector are urged to develop a competence framework for web designers which includes web accessibility, and to use it for personal development schemes and recruitment campaigns.

Speaking on behalf of the UK Presidency, Cabinet Office Minister Jim Murphy, said: I am encouraged by the excellent examples of good practice highlighted in this report but there are clearly widespread failings which must be addressed."

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