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The UK government has issued a consultation document on Delivering Inclusive Websites.

It’s not finalised, as the consultation doesn’t end until November 13 (my birthday, by the way …) but in its current state it’s not a bad document; it rehashes PAS 78, recognises that the only way to find out if a website is accessible is to test it and it says that the minimum acceptable level of accessibility is Level-AA of WCAG 1.0—so valid, semantic code becomes mandatory:

The minimum level of accessibility for all Government websites is Level Double-A of the W3C guidelines. Any new site approved by the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Public Engagement and the Delivery of Service must conform to these guidelines from the point of publication.

Continuing standalone sites must achieve this level of accessibility by December 2008. Websites which fail to meet the mandated level of conformance shall be subject to the withdrawal process for domain names…

If these requirements are ever policed (and there’s no guarantee; UK government websites have a sorry track-record), there are huge ramifications for their suppliers. For example, those who manufacture Content Management Systems will be required to ensure that their products produce valid, semantic code and comply with authoring tool accessibility guidelines (ATAG) so that members of staff with disabilities can publish with them:

In order to build an accessible website, authoring tools must produce content that upholds web content accessibility standards. This is especially important if the organisation will be using a Content Management System (CMS) to produce content automatically. This must be taken into account during the procurement of authoring tools and CMS.

So that content authoring is possible for people with the widest range of abilities, it is also important that the interface to the content authoring tools or CMS is also accessible. Accessibility criteria must therefore be specified in the choice and procurement of these systems, in the same way that accessibility is taken into account when commissioning websites.

I confess that I’m rather sceptical that this will see a dramatic change in governmental websites, but it does give an indication that the more clued-up people in the UK government understand that grudging compliance with WCAG 1.0 level A does not constitute “accessibility”.

It should also cause a few discussions within vendor organisations. Microsoft have been commendably open in a discussion about Sharepoint 2007, acknowledging that it won’t be WCAG level A or ATAG-compliant out of the box until the next release in 2009 or 2010.

How many other CMS vendors can really claim to be ATAG-compliant or produce valid code without significant customisation?

(This article translated into Polish by Sebastian Snopek.)

Your Replies

#1 On November 4th, 2007 4:48 pm pauldwaite replied:

My reading of the guidelines might be wrong, but I reckon priority 2 means that, aside from authoring tool considerations, anyone writing content that’s going to appear on the site needs to know HTML, at least as far as headings and lists go. When they have a list, they need to think of it as a list, not some newlines and bullets.

I don‘t know how you make that happen.

#2 On November 4th, 2007 5:21 pm Gareth Rushgrove replied:

I hope it makes an impact. As you mention PAS78 was a decent doc that only a few people in procurement I saw ever mentioned.

Who actually polices this though? Procurers are generally not in a position to do so themselves, does the government have people centrally that are both up to the job AND have the time available or is it left to the accessibility community to kick up a fuss?

#3 On November 4th, 2007 5:23 pm Matt Robin replied:

Hey Bruce – It’ll certainly be interesting to see what happens after November 13th, but…like you, I’m also sceptical. The possibility of CMS vendors adapting to these new guidelines is uncertain at the moment – but it would be excellent if they could.

Aside accessibility, I’d also like to see general usability dramatically improved on the most of the government web sites. Sure, they have a lot of information to relay to the user – but does it have to be such a hopeless mess?! Many of those sites look like they have never had any UX design at all. Making it accessible would be great….but making the existing information possible to be found at all would be even better! ;)

I agree with your comment about the ‘sorry track record’ for the UK government web sites, and we can only hope this is the start of a serious improvement for these public-service related sites.

#4 On November 5th, 2007 4:53 am Richard Morton replied:

It’s great that the UK government are finally starting to get their act together. They’ve only been breaking the law for eight years so far on accessibility of websites.

Pauldwaite raises a good point about accessibility and content. I think that for many people who used Microsoft Word or Openoffice or similar, thinking in terms of headings and paragraphs and lists shouldn’t be that difficult. After all it is quite difficult to produce a good looking document in Word without using the provided features for these semantics. CMSs need to go the same way and make it so easy to do that it would be harder to make content inaccessible.

I would also really like to see MPs own websites being made accessible, so that their constituents have better access to the information and communications that the websites provide.

Just off to the betting shop now to see what odds I can get on the Government missing their December 2008 target by a few years.

#5 On November 5th, 2007 6:44 am Robert Whittaker replied:

This is certainly encouraging, but hasn’t double-A been a recommendation for several years in previous government guidelines?

The language in the first part you’ve quoted looks nice and clear, providing “Cabinet Sub-Committee on Public Engagement and the Delivery of Service” is required to approve all new websites. Though what about major redesigns? It would be a shame if more departments messed up by commissioning inaccessible redesigns before the 2008 deadline.

My biggest concern is the need to raise awareness with those (presumably non-technical) managers with overall responsibility for the websites. I hope that the Cabinet Sub-Committee will be more proactive in this respect.

It seems to me that a first step in achieving an accessible website, is to determine the current state of things and where improvements are needed. Perhaps it would be a good idea to require that each domain owner publishes a short report on their site’s current accessibility and a plan on how and when any improvements will be made. This would also force accessibility is on the managers’ radars.

#6 On November 5th, 2007 11:40 am Stewart replied:

Bring on December 2008, I work for a local Government Trust. We have to run our trust business from a Council web site which is very poor.

The Council web site runs on Oracle PSCM and the people who run the site have very little knowledge of coding and have taken the stance (because PCMS produces poor code and is not very compliant) that web standards don’t really matter, all that matters is a report done by Socitm “The Socitm Better Connected report”

I have ran the bobby on the site and it fails single A in some places, but this Socitm report rates the site as one of the best in Scotland?

#7 On November 6th, 2007 3:00 am Bruce Lawson’s personal site  : UK government accessibility consultation replied:

[...] Cross-posted to the Web Standards Project, so leave any comments there please. [...]

#8 On November 6th, 2007 4:40 pm Darius Jahandarie replied:

It’s a good thing that the UK government is thinking about requiring Double-A compliance, but as pointed out in the article and the comments, some things about Double-A are simply very complicated to implement in a multi-user run website, in which many non-technically oriented people may be altering pages.

This may be a very large challenge for the government if the consultation is finalized, and it may not be totally fulfilled.
But then again, something is better than nothing.

#9 On November 7th, 2007 5:44 am Robin Massart replied:

Regarding concerns on how to make non-technical people write standards compliant HTML, I think the key is to rethink content production.

Too often content production is considered to be some sort of design exercise in terms how to make a site “look good”. Content should be produced unstyled in black on white. If it doesn’t work black on white it won’t work in any other design.

To write good HTML content requires the command of just a few tags (strong, em, ul, ol, li, p, br, blockquote). Those who are more adventurous can obviously make use of a lot more, but the point is it is not difficult to write semantic HTML content. The problem is that too many authoring tools overwhelm the author with too many options and design driven tags.

It shouldn’t matter who is altering pages (assuming they are trained authors), it matters that they have the correct tools at their disposal.

#10 On November 7th, 2007 12:15 pm Contented: content that makes people happy » Blog Archive » UK government accessibility: wobbly dentures or strong teeth? replied:

[...] Bruce Lawson of the Web Standards Project alerts us to a consultation document issued by the UK government that will be finalised on 13 November: Public consultation on Delivering Inclusive Websites [...]

#11 On November 13th, 2007 8:00 am FoxLand » Archive » UK government site accessibility replied:

[...] Not the most exciting of titles, but the The Web Standards Project discusses the UK’s drive for accessibility in government websites. It is bizarre and also shocking that so many content management systems in use by government agencies, ministries and quangos seem unable to generate good clean accessible and semantic code.  [...]

#12 On November 18th, 2007 7:09 am Vectorpedia replied:

I hope the UK Government will enforce their mandate and require Content Management Systems conform to ATAG.

#13 On November 18th, 2007 8:34 pm Destin replied:

How many other CMS vendors can really claim to be ATAG-compliant or produce valid code without significant customisation?
The bottom line in this case is that an ATAG compliant tool will likely never exist.

#14 On November 20th, 2007 10:22 am Richard Morton replied:

Jay says: In 2002 most of websites in UK were not WAI compliant. Prob. latest research may help us to get more relevant details.

I’ll just do a bit of research (finger in the air for five seconds). My research says that in 2007 most of the websites in the UK are not WAI compliant.

Either I am right or the Olympics budget including contingency will be enough for the 2012 London Olympics

#15 On November 22nd, 2007 3:32 am Runescape replied:

Richard I think you will be hard pressed to find any sites that are WAI compliant.

Do you have an example of one that actually is?

#16 On December 4th, 2007 1:46 am Faberlica replied:

Where I can read more about UK government accessibility consultation?

#17 On December 11th, 2007 11:40 am vicky petersen replied:

Well having worked for the government for 6 years, i think this going to be harder than most people anticipate. Making a W3C compliant and AA compliant website is the easy bit. Explaining to a civil servant that they cant have the design they want because ‘building the page in that way wont comply’ is a little more tricky. I was in charge of usability and accessibility for the most hit UK government website and was always fighting against employees who had no idea of the benefits. The numerous ‘tiffs’ over why we need to comply, and how it will benefit our users drove me to leave the government in the end. Until AA standards are made law, the average government department will not take accessibility seriously.

#18 On December 14th, 2007 7:41 pm Vectorpedia replied:

Lets see if the UK Government enforces their own criteria and guidelines……but past history of compliance is poor.

#19 On December 16th, 2007 12:45 pm Autocrat replied:

So, what is the latest news on this, and how whill it affect standard business (non-goverment) websites?

Accessibility in the UK is appalling, mostly out of complete ignorance.
No one has really made a big deal about it, and an awful lot of “web design” companies haven’t got a clue about accessibility!

So please, any updates or further reading on what is needed would be greatly appreciated.

Oh, and Hppy Christmas and a wonderful New Year to all :)

#20 On December 20th, 2007 3:17 am Webdesign Winterstein replied:

@mp3: Whats that for an post? Spam?

@vicky petersen: I don´t think, that anybody can say, that making a W3C compliant website is a easy bit. There are round 10 milliards websites in the world and every webmaster has his own program style, you know?

So i found, that it is really a problem, that there not is an affected standard for this business. There are good starts of some projekts, but there are bad ends…

Last but not least: Merry X-Mas and a wonderful New Year to all, which read this ;-)

#21 On December 28th, 2007 10:15 pm Laura’s Notebook | Technology for Non-profit Organisations, Social Media and Accessible Website Design » Blog Archive » Consultation on accessible government websites replied:

[...] the Web Standards Project. Like this article? Share it!Diggdel.icio.usFacebookMa.gnoliaStumbleUponTechnorati You may also like these related articles… Accessibility 2.0: UK newspaper websites featuredin studySuccess with the law on accessible websitesUsing Twitter for conferences and consultationFree tools to test your site for accessibilityLet your readers be in control: Text resizing [...]

#22 On December 29th, 2007 2:33 am newsworld replied:

hmmzz really interesting. but i dont think dis will be a good step in the right deriction

#23 On January 5th, 2008 7:24 pm Chris M replied:

No offence but even the accessibility community recognise that WCAG is flawed and out of date. Why is it that government feel that the only effective manner in which to improve something is to get more consultation, create more documentation and get more pointless red tape.

Secondly not everyone agrees implicitly on just how semantic code should be. No Code, is 100% semantic.

Then there’s the CMS, most modern CMS’s (even the free ones) create pretty standard valid code. I wouldn’t fancy being the poor mug who has to sift through every entry into the system to make sure that someone hasn’t misused a list at some point, or written an entry that uses too confusing a grammar for dyslexics etc.

To top it WCAG 2.0 looks to be a piece of rubbish. Maybe its time to set standards for screen readers as well and to give web developers the tools to work with screen reader developers like JAWS to create sites that are easier for blind users and browser developments to account for the colour blind. There’s such a wide range of disabilities to accommodate for and the current standards just don’t cut it.

@Runescape: My sites compliant (though it is suffering rot from neglect) (checked by GAWDS) as is one of my Clients. At that point though I ran off to the Corporate world of in house design. Where I was quickly told that Firefox users were none existent and WCAG was a myth. And this is a company that has over 6 billion in assets. So take a $2 million dollar project that flops after someone FINALLY takes notice of my head banging on the wall and the realisation that theres more then IE out there to be served and we have a new project starting with these targets in mind… Will it meet P2? Probably not but its a step in the right direction and you can only hit a director so hard.

@Autocrat: You are unfortunately correct, a lot of “web design agencies” don’t have a clue about accessibility. Why? Because a lot of agencies (in my experience in dealing with loads of them in the last 14 months) are in fact print agencies that have been on a one day training course in HTML. I’m always amazed if they produce a page that validates let alone meets P1.

@vicky petersen: Technically with CSS and a semantically coded page any design can be workable and still accessible (so long as you keep a decent contrast ratio).

What we need is a CSS-Accessible-Zen-Gardens to show that it can be done, look good and still meet WCAG p1,p2 at a minimum.

#24 On January 16th, 2008 10:25 am Hubbers replied:

So the usual then. Lots of talk with no policing.

#25 On January 23rd, 2008 10:17 am Richard Morton replied:

@Chris M – you are spot on when you say that we need CSS Zen Gardens to become accessible. It wouldn’t be that difficult either because most of the designs fail accessibility guidelines because of colour contrast and using images to replace text.

Trying to think about your penultimate point referencing @vicky peterson. Sounds plausible but I’m not entirely convinced. If you are talking about passing the guidelines (which I admit is only an assumption on my part) then what about a page that passes all your criteria, but doesn’t have a site map/table of contents, or navigation different from other pages on the site, or that has a flickering decorative image, need I go on?

#26 On January 30th, 2008 12:21 pm Richard Warren replied:

The standards for the underlying engineering coding (HTML, XHTML & CSS) are robust and universally accepted. So there really is no excuse for someone who is being paid money to build a website not to build it with valid code. Similarly if a CMS produces invalid code then either the user needs to learn how to use the CMS properly or the CMS vendor needs to fix his product.

Guidelines such as WAIG are guidelines not standards and the saying about being “for the guidance of the wise and the obedience of fools” is very apt here. The crucial issue is does the website work properly in the real world of browsers and assistive software. This requires testing with real users.

Nearly all current websites can be made accessible without changing the present “look and feel”. For the few (usually Flash heavy) sites where this is a real problem there is always the option of HTML alternatives. So the awkward client can still have his, or her, “experimental” design whilst you quietly make it as accessible as possible and provide alternatives where not possible.

I appreciate that the language and structure of the guidelines, as laid out on the W3C website, is not easy reading. I also appreciate that some people are not fully happy with the individual priorities awarded to certain issues. However the underlying concept is vital if we genuinely believe in an inclusive society.

#27 On March 11th, 2008 4:30 pm ARES replied:

This will be a very good step in the right direction!!! I hope ppl will understand that!

#28 On March 11th, 2008 4:31 pm Life Path replied:

Yeah I agreew with you Chris M… Thanks for sharing

#29 On March 20th, 2008 9:11 am Alastair Revell replied:

The idea that UK government web sites might be withdrawn from the name space sparked an article on my blog concerning UK web sites in general and their compliance with existing UK legislation.

What if UK web sites could be withdrawn from the name space for failing to comply with UK legislation (such as the Disability Discrimination Act 2005)?

Alastair Revell
Managing Consultant
Revell Research Systems

#30 On March 27th, 2008 11:25 am Nick B replied:

I’m glad the UK Government are at least saying something. I try to make external providers provide accessible Web content, but I have trouble from departments who trample over accessibility shouting “everyone else is doing it, why can’t we”.

One external design agency actually charged extra to make a site accessible.

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