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A study of 1,000 websites 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 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 which meet these aims.

Of the 1,000 sites tested, 808 (81 per cent) failed on automated testing to reach the minimum standard for accessibility, known as Level A. But that does not mean that 19 per cent 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 website is accompanied by an 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 if 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 per cent) were not violations of any of the WCAG's 65 checkpoints - meaning that they could be present on any website which conformed to WCAG guidelines at any level.

The research found an average of eight instances of the W3C guidelines being violated per home page; but it also found that on average there were 108 potential instances on the typical home page where a disabled person might be disadvantaged in his or her use of a site.

Only two websites 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.

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