PDF 'creature' still haunts government sites

Sites using PDF documents exempt from compliance with accessibility guidelines

A number of government agency websites are still not fully compliant with accessibility guidelines and are unlikely to be so until at least the latter half of this year, but the State Services Commission is already revising its guidelines.

“To reflect recent changes to internet technology a cross-agency team will begin a comprehensive review of the guidelines,” says an SSC statement issued last week. A draft consultation paper will be issued in September, and the revision is planned to be complete by December, at which point the new guidelines will become mandatory for government agencies.

Subsequent to the issuing of the original guidelines, “browsers have matured,” says Edwin Bruce, the SSC’s manager of e-government projects. Sites are placing a heavier emphasis on transactions, which are not fully covered in the current version of the standards.

“I suppose we were a little optimistic” in imposing a compliance deadline of January 1 this year, Bruce says. It is reasonable not to expect agencies to disrupt existing development plans which may have been plotted to last as long as 18 months, he says. Nevertheless a survey of sites done for the Office for Disability Issues in mid-2005 found significant progress in making sites accessible.

As expected, some organisations have been given exemptions from some aspects of compliance. These include Land Information NZ with approval to use non-standard formats for map images and the National Library, which can use non-HTML formats on content that it did not produce and to which it does not own the copyright.

Coincidentally, last week saw Linz notify solicitors and surveyors that it would require all of them to use its electronic channel Landonline to lodge all transactions by July 2008. Disability activists have questioned how disabled solicitors might comply with this requirement in the face of incomplete compliance with the guidelines at Linz.

The Army has an exemption for its Force9 online game site, as it is aimed at a “specialist audience”, potential Army recruits.

An “umbrella” exemption has also been granted for sites which use PDF documents which will be difficult to convert to HTML. Agencies operating such sites will have to provide an HTML paragraph describing “the key messages” of the PDF document.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen has called PDFs “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and pronounced them “unfit for human consumption” (Computerworld, October 3, 2005).

Although accessibility is often thought of as a problem for disabled people, Bruce points out that over-elaborate websites and those demanding non-standard plug-ins can “disable” mainstream users with basic browsers or a low-speed connection to the internet. Most people, more-over, develop some kind of disability affecting web use with age, he says. Disability activists are also strong on this point, often referring to the general population as “the temporarily able-bodied”.

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