eAccessibility of public sector services within the EU

MicroAngelo has long seen the power of the web to deliver essential information and services to those that would otherwise be unable to access them. To revolutionise the way the public interacts with the government at all levels - Westminster, local councils, MPs and the huge number of public sector services that exist to serve us. Web accessibility has always been taken seriously by everyone at MicroAngelo, and we've engineered a number of features to make our website accessible. Now it looks like the EU wants the public sector to follow suit.

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On the 24th of November 2005 a report on the accessibility of public sector services in the EU was published, reviewing the current accessibility of 436 government services' websites across the EU, and setting out recommendations for the future. Just 3% of the sites reviewed conformed to the W3Cs Level A standard for accessibility (the most basic guidelines regarding accessibility). Yet there were a few websites that clearly showed that accessibility had been considered, such as the Spanish Social Security Administration website www.seg-social.es, although there is still a long way to go.

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The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) published a formal investigation of over 1000 websites back in April 2004 entitled "The Web: Access and Inclusion for Disabled People". The DRC report provides more detailed information on the specific difficulties people with different disabilities face, including the nature of the difficulties and suggestions for future improvement.

The test groups included blind, partially sighted, deaf, dyslexic and other specific learning difficulties, and physically impaired users. To test the selected sites the groups were set common, everyday, tasks to achieve. The users recorded the success rate and the time it took to complete the tasks, which was averaged and compared to the success rate and average time for users without any disadvantage.

Predictably the users which had the lowest success rate and took the longest were the blind users, who rely upon a program called a screen reader to read the contents of a website aloud. I believe that, while users relying upon a screen reader will inherently be expected to take a little longer to complete a task, the success rate could, with accessible website design and better screen reader software, be just as high as a user with sight.

Interestingly, of the five key problems identified by the deaf and hard of hearing test group only one relates to their disadvantage ("Lack of alternative media for audio-based information and complex terms/language"). The four other key problems are common to almost all the other groups, and indeed the average web user:

  • Unclear and confusing layout of pages
  • Confusing and disorienting navigation mechanisms
  • Inappropriate use of colours and poor contrast between content and background
  • Graphics and text too small

Some of these problems can only be solved at the design level, others by the "user agent" (web browser or screen reader, etc). If the graphics or text are too small use a web browser such as Opera or Mozilla Firefox which allows the user to "zoom", increasing the size of both the text and the images. Using Opera also allows the user to easily style the web, increasing the text size and contrast. Designers, the message is clear: navigation needs to be simplified; page layouts need to be simplified.

The biggest challenge is raising awareness of web accessibility, particularly focusing on the people that commission websites. The vast majority have never heard of it (or, indeed, the Disability Discrimination Act that makes web accessibility a legal requirement), and very few web design companies make accessible websites.

The difficulty is that, to the average user, there is almost no difference between an accessible site and an inaccessible site. Perhaps a "Web Accessibility Day", encouraging users to unplug their mice, take off their glasses (or put someone else's on) and test their favorite websites, would make web accessibility the high profile issue that it needs to be to get into peoples hearts and minds.

Check out our accessibility features, learn about our services in the field of Accessibility (including Accessibility Audits for your website) or read more about the DDA on our web accessibility page.

24th April 2006

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