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Web inaccessibility 'creates net underclass'

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Companies and public bodies are still failing to take accessibility into account when designing their websites, despite the risk of legal action under the UK's disability discrimination laws. A SiteMorse test last week of central government websites uncovered errors on the vast majority of sites, and even the Disability and the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) websites failed A and AA compliance.

This lack of action on accessibility is creating an internet underclass, according to web testing firm Scivisium. The company has identified several different kinds of accessibility problems, where the site will only work with a particular browser, or requires the user to change their browser settings to gain access.

Deri Jones, SciVisum's CEO, likens it to operating a door policy, and points out that the problem is compounded by the increase people using alternatives to Internet Explorer. Sites guilty of running such a policy range from SMEs to FTSE 100 firms and government organisations, he says.

Some sites limit access to a couple of browser types, and simply block all other requests for access. At www.totaljobs.com, visitors using Firefox or Netscape can't access the recruiters section, as shown below. Users are recommended to use IE.

Screen grab showing total jobs' door policy

Other sites require that you make changes to your settings. For example, if you have turned off Javascript, a visit to the web page of London law firm, Trowers, here just gets you a blank white page. www.government-accounting.gov.uk has the same problem.

"[The problem] has arisen because web designers are building increasing complex sites optimised to work a specific browser, typically Internet Explorer. Inevitably the viewing experience is reduced with other browser types and so sites are increasingly being locked down to work with limited browser types," says Jones.

He argues that rather than presenting users with various options (plain text, flash etc) when they arrive at a web page, that sites ought to be designed to work for everyone.

"Flash content, if it is really vital, can be offered within the site at the right places. There is no need to have the entire site flash. Likewise, if you offer a text equivalent, is that because you know some parts of the site don't work with images switched off? Better then to ensure the one site works with and without images."

In April this year, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) surveyed 1,000 sites, testing their accessibility levels with automated testing software and then with a disabled user group. Of the 1,000 sites, only six qualified as AA compliant under automated testing. Further, the disabled user group found usability problems even on sites that did comply with accessibility guidelines. ®

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