AbilityNet’s digital inclusion chief Robin Christopherson wants to see ‘internet wardens’ with powers to fine councils that fail to comply with accessibility law. Gill Hitchcock reports.
Christopherson wants to see the internet equivalent of traffic wardens patrolling websites – Photo credit: Flickr, Salim Fadhley
Whole sections of society are being disenfranchised because local authorities, along with other public and private sector bodies, are failing to produce websites that are inviting and user-friendly to disabled people.
“The internet is often not a pleasant place for people with disabilities and in many cases it’s downright discriminatory,” says Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at accessibility charity AbilityNet.
In the local government sector, at least, there is some cause for optimism. Socitm’s annual Better Connected survey this year found that council websites had made a big improvement in their accessibility to disabled people, including those using assistive technologies like text-to-speech screen readers or keyboard-only controls.
Nearly two thirds of sites, 64%, passed the accessibility test, carried out by a team of reviewers that included people with visual impairment, dyslexia, mobility impairment and learning disabilities.
The results show a significant improvement on the 2015 pass rate of 43%, and on 2014 when it was just 26%.
Christopherson welcomes the year-on-year improvement, but says that councils have no option but to get better.
“Local authority websites are often the only channel to be able to do something – councils are driving their service provision through online channels, and in many cases they don’t advertise the alternative,” he says. “So it’s extremely important that they are as inclusive as possible.
Failure to enforce
For Christopherson, the biggest question is, given that accessibility is a legal requirement, “why isn’t this being enforced?”
According to AbilityNet, the Equality Act, which was introduced in 2010 with the intention of dealing with the issue of disability discrimination, provides for government to ensure councils are coming up to scratch.
In May, AbilityNet called on government to use these powers to make sure websites are complying with the law. In an open letter it noted that, while government enforces the word of law very stringently in many other areas, it has not sought to do so in web accessibility.
“You can barely leave your car one minute over time without getting a parking ticket,” the letter read, “but where are the government’s wardens of the internet?”
Christopherson says that one reason the government has failed to enforce the law is because “its own house hasn’t been in order”.
But, he says, that’s changing. “The main GOV.UK website is better, and local authority websites are rising up. The message now is that we really do want the government to start enforcing this.”
And he says that enforcement wouldn’t have to be onerous.
“Although achieving accessibility takes effort and experience, it is very easy to check whether sites are compliant, so you could have a very modestly-sized team going through websites,” says Christopherson. “If that body has the ability to levy fines, they could impose penalties based on the level of accessibility and the size of the organisation.”
He adds that, through Freedom of Information requests, the public would have access to information on which sites were compliant, which he says would create “a financial and reputational imperative to become more inclusive”.
Councils need to join up
Websites are, of course, always a work in progress and Socitm says that content editors need to be aware of things they do that could introduce accessibility barriers.
These include adding images with no “alternative text” or hyperlinking to sections of text with phrases like “click here”, which may not be meaningful when read out by screen readers.
And when it comes to good practice, Christopherson believes councils need to be better at joined-up working.
For instance, he says, there have been times when AbilityNet has worked extensively with a department to help get its online processes up and running. Then, just a few months later, it has received a request from another team in the same organisation to fix similar issues.
“There has been zero knowledge transfer, and it feels like this happens more often within the public sector,” he says.
The disappointing news from Socitm’s survey is that although 80% of council websites are now purposed for mobile, just 46% passed disability accessibility tests carried out on mobiles.
“Mobiles devices are empowering for disabled people because what you’ve got is all the frippery cut away, and a much more distilled experience on a small screen,” says Christopherson.
“What Socitm’s findings show is that councils are producing their mobile versions for able-bodied people, but aren’t testing those platforms with disabled users.
“So they are half way there, but it’s vital that they improve testing because in many cases mobile will be the go-to platform for people with disabilities.”
Build in best practice
Asked what his key messages to council web teams would be, Christopherson replies: “Leverage the power of your citizens, your users, invite feedback.”
He advises councils to run surgeries or forum days, “where you can get people to show you how they are operating their technologies on your website”.
Councils should also have a good accessibility page or section on their website, with the accessibility link well signposted and well populated with useful information.
And local authorities don’t have to go it alone – Christopherson says there are some fantastic resources to help get them on the right track.
He suggests WebAim.org as the go-to place advice on making sure a website is accessible, and that organisations like AbilityNet can help to “short circuit” the route to compliance and help with maintaining that too.
“There is still a certain amount of feeling that accessibility is a bolt-on for disabled people,” he says, “but so much more could be done to build in a best practice approach.”