Digital Democracy for All?
Assessing Web Accessibility in Ireland

Dr. Barry McMullin
Research Institute for Networks and
Communications Engineering (RINCE)
Dublin City University

Nouvelles Technologies pour une Société plus Accessible
Paris, Apr 28-29 2003
[Document also available in PDF Format.]


Contents



Abstract

Users with a variety of disabilities can potentially benefit greatly from using the Internet to mediate their access to products and services. Design of accessible Web content is codified in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Compliance with WCAG (and/or similar, derivative, guidelines) is now the subject of considerable activity, both legal and technical, in many different jurisdictions. Within this overall international context, this paper reports on a project to carry out an automated baseline survey of WCAG compliance of Web sites based in Ireland. Summary results are presented and discussed.

Introduction

The technology of the Internet holds tremendous promise to significantly improve access to information, goods, and services for many people with disabilities. Properly engineering web sites can interoperate with dedicated assistive technologies to flexibly address a wide range of disabilities (W3C, 2001). This is not rocket science: the basic requirements have been internationally codified since 1999 in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C, 1999), and more recently endorsed by the European Commission (2001) and the Irish National Disability Authority (2002).

WCAG defines three conformance levels: WCAG-A is a minimum standard which a site must meet to be considered accessible for any significant disability groups; WCAG-AA is a "professional practice" standard, which all sites should meet to be accessible to a broad range of disability groups; finally WCAG-AAA is a "gold standard" of maximum accessibility which some sites may choose to aim for--for example, sites with a particular remit to serve communities of people with disabilities.

Over the last two years, with the support of AIB PLC, a project has been underway at the Research Institute for Networks and Communications Engineering (RINCE) at DCU to investigate the conformance of the Irish web to the WCAG guidelines. Following the development of technical support tools, a detailed accessibility study of over 159 separate web sites operated by Irish organisations, spanning a wide range of activities, information, and services, was conducted in the Summer of 2002.

These sites were tested (using Bobby Worldwide) for a selected set of 25 separate characteristics, or potential defects, which are correlated with the WCAG guidelines. This set is not exhaustive: it cannot determine that any site positively meets the guidelines; but failure on any of these tests definitively demonstrates failure against the guidelines.

A comprehensive description of the study is available in (McMullin, 2002): the current paper presents only a brief summary.

Key Results

Of the sample sites studied:

Pervasive Defects

Of the 25 specific accessibility barriers studied, the most pervasive (at WCAG-A and WCAG-AA standards) were as follows:

Of course, many sites exhibited a combination of these defects, and others. However, while this list identifies a number of pervasive accessibility barriers, it is by no means exhaustive. For technical reasons, many other potential accessibility barriers were not even considered in the current study: it is likely that at least some of these would be as pervasive as some or all of the factors identified above. In other words, bleak as the above picture is, it is almost certainly an understatement of the difficulties faced by users with disabilities in accessing the Irish Web.

This list may be a useful starting point for web site operators in considering the accessibility of their own individual sites: but it is, of course, no substitute for:

Recommendations for Action

The primary motivation for this particular study was to inform public policy development in Ireland. The recommendations below are therefore specifically targeted at the Irish national context; however, at least some of them should have wider relevance in other jurisdictions.

Public Awareness:
A web accessibility awareness campaign, targeted specifically at relevant policy and decision makers in both public and private sectors, should be an immediate priority. This should focus explicitly on the incorporation of accessibility requirements into all specifications, tender documents, etc., for web services.
New Tools and Technologies:
Organisations developing software and tools for web site development should ensure that these conform to relevant standards and guidelines for producing accessible contents and services. Organisations sourcing or evaluating new web development tools should make conformance to accessibility guidelines an essential qualifying condition.
Leading by Example:
A detailed timetable should be immediately published for all Irish Government Department Web sites to achieve WCAG-AA conformance. Reports on progress against this timetable should be issued regularly. A co-ordinated project to achieve conformance across the wider public sector should be centrally initiated and monitored. Private sector organisations should initiate similar comprehensive commitments to an accessible Irish Web.
Education and Training:
Training materials, courses, etc., relevant to universal design should be developed and promoted by the widest possible variety of organisations involved in education and training. Professional bodies should require that Universal Design be incorporated in the curriculum of all relevant educational programmes.
Legislation:
There should be clear Irish legislation setting explicit, comprehensive, and legally enforceable standards for accessibility of all Web products and services to users with disabilities.
Further Research:
Research and development of technologies to support social inclusion in the information society should be actively encouraged, and materially supported, by both public and private sector agencies and organisations.

Conclusion

This study shows that, despite Ireland's justifiable pride in its economic and technological development, despite very laudable goals in documents such as the E-Europe Action Plan (European Commission, 2001,2000), the current commitment to accessibility of the Irish web for users with disabilities is, at best, aspirational--and, at worst, cynically inadequate.

This is doubly unfortunate. It is not just that web technology is not being applied--as it could be--to positively improve opportunities and capabilities for users with disabilities; but on the contrary, as web services become more pervasive and essential, to the extent that they remain inaccessible this will actually impose progressively more disadvantage and exclusion on groups with disabilities in our society.

It is hoped that the results of this study will serve to highlight these issues, and to further encourage the many agencies and organisations who are already actively promoting and supporting voluntary improvements in web accessibility in Ireland. Ultimately however, there must surely also be a role for compulsion--legislation and regulation--to fully guarantee and vindicate the rights of all citizens to equal treatment in a digital democracy.

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