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Egg decorated for site accessibility in DRC study

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Egg.com and Oxfam.org.uk were among just five websites praised for their excellent accessibility, following a landmark study by the Disability Rights Commission that is already influencing the Internet's standards-setting body, the W3C.

City University London tested 1,000 UK-based sites on behalf of the DRC, an independent statutory body responsible for advising Government on the effectiveness of disability discrimination legislation. Its findings, released yesterday, confirmed what many already suspected: very few sites are accessible to the disabled – albeit an inaccessible site presents a risk of legal action under the UK's Disability Discrimination Act.

However, while the report did not "name and shame" the 808 sites that failed to reach a minimum standard of accessibility in automated tests, City University has today revealed five "examples of excellence" from its study:

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.”

Despite these examples of excellence, the overwhelming majority of websites were difficult, and at times impossible, for people with disabilities to access.

Petrie added: “Web developers need to use the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines as well as involve disabled users to ensure web sites are usable for these groups.”

In undertaking the research, City University used software tools. Many are familiar with Watchfire's free Bobby service for basic accessibility testing; and the researchers used a version of it that offers advanced scanning and reporting capabilities.

Potential misunderstandings

In its automated tests, City University checked for technical compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines. The W3C is an international standards-setting body for the internet, founded by Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the Web.

Following the report from the DRC, co-written by City University, the W3C issued a statement "to address potential misunderstandings about W3C's [Web Accessibility Initiative or WAI] Guidelines introduced by certain interpretations of the data."

This was not, however, a rejection of the DRC's study. In fact, the W3C has confirmed that it welcomes the UK research. The potential misunderstanding came from the fact that, while 1,000 sites underwent automated tests, City University put 100 of these sites to further testing by a disabled user group.

That group identified 585 accessibility and usability problems; but the DRC commented that 45 per cent of these were not violations of any of the 65 checkpoints listed in the W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG.

The report was based on Version 1.0 of the WCAG – a version which has been around since 1999. The W3C was keen to point out that the WCAG is only one of three sets of accessibility guidelines recognised as international standards, all prepared under the auspices of the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative.

The complete family of WAI Guidelines comprises these Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines, and the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines. Together, these address requirements not just for designing websites, but also for making browsers, media players and assistive technologies, and for making web authoring tools accessible for people with disabilities.

The W3C explained that in fact its WAI package addresses 95 per cent of the problems highlighted by the DRC report. However, both the W3C and the DRC are keen to point out that they are working towards a common goal: to make websites more accessible to the disabled.

User testing

OUT-LAW spoke to Judy Brewer, the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative Domain Leader. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group is currently working on Version 2.0 of the WCAG which she hopes will be finalised next year, possibly in the first quarter.

"We will be looking at the comments from the DRC report in our work on Version 2.0," explained Brewer. "We have always said that user testing of accessibility features is important when conducting comprehensive testing of web site accessibility."

She acknowledged that the way Version 1.0 is written means that it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether various checkpoints are satisfied. The plan, it seems, is to retain some concept of priority or conformance levels, with criteria included which will make it easier for web developers to know that they have met them.

This change of style should help: another recent study, by web-testing specialist SciVisum, found that 40 per cent of a sample of more than 100 UK sites claiming to be accessible do not meet the WAI checkpoints for which they claim compliance. Brewer said this is not unusual: "We noticed that over-claiming a site's accessibility by as much as a-level-and-a-half is not uncommon." So Version 2.0 should be more precisely testable.

The reason for the W3C statement on the DRC findings was, said Brewer, to minimise the risk that the public might interpret the findings as implying that they cannot rely on the guidelines.

City University's Professor Petrie told OUT-LAW: "Our report strongly recommends using the WCAG guidelines supplemented by user testing – which is a recommendation made by W3C." She added that the University's data is "completely at W3C's disposal" for its continuing work on WCAG Version 2.0.

Both the W3C and the DRC are keen to point out that developers should follow the guidelines for site design – WCAG Version 1.0 – but they should not follow these in isolation: user testing, they both agree, is very, very important.

© copyright 2004 OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Masons.

Related links

W3C statement on DRC report (Includes links to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines, and the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines)
DRC report (56-page PDF)
Bunnyfoot Universality advised Egg.com on its site accessibility.
Disabled access to web sites under UK law OUT-LAW article

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