Agencies baulk at accessibility rules

Compliance 'in spirit' may be acceptable

Some government agencies are reluctant to adopt the new website accessibility guidelines due to take effect early next year, says the State Services Commission.

At a meeting to discuss the new standards held last month, moderated by Edwin Bruce, the Commission's web standards manager, several contributors suggested agencies would be more positive about the changes if minor standards were defined as “good practice”. This would allow them to be introduced into government websites gradually.

Bruce and former SSC staffer Mark Harris, who is largely responsible for the new standards, are reluctant to agree to this. But Bruce says he is expecting requests for "exceptions or exemptions" and, depending on the reasons given, some could be allowed.

The SSC team responsible for the guidelines is sketching out the conditions for exemption requests. "A formal request will have to be made by a senior manager to the eGIF [e-government interoperability framework] management committee," he says. "I don't know how many [requests] we'll get — if we'll get any". If there are a lot of requests, a special subcommittee may have to be set up, he says.

However, appeals on the grounds of insufficient time or resources to meet the deadline "probably won't hold water", says Bruce.

There has been plenty of forewarning, he says. But Bruce says there is scope for interpretation of some of the guideline provisions and the Commission is considering flagging any ambiguous areas.

If there are vague areas it would be difficult to interpret what is meant by "mandatory" and how one would measure "compliance", says Bruce. There might be ways of complying with the guidelines "in spirit" rather than meeting every minute technical detail, he says.

An Education Review Office representative commented at the meeting that "mandatory" should include everything that was really needed, but that particularly in areas where technology is likely to change there should be more flexibility.

The new website accessibility standards are part of a larger task of establishing trust between the online citizen and the government, Bruce says.

It’s not just a matter of allowing disabled people to access government services more easily, says Bruce. Websites built to proper standards work better over the slower connections a large section of the population still has to work with.

The new guidelines are based on the international W3C consortium's least restrictive level 1 accessibility standards, known as the WAI (web accessibility initiative) standards. They cover areas such as the ability to enlarge print; clear colour combinations; and the presence of alt tags describing graphical features in text, so blind and partially-sighted users can be informed about a site's features using voice synthesis.

The New Zealand government's guidelines stipulate sites must comply with WAI level 1. But they are also expected to comply with at least some of the more extensive level 2 and level 3 standards, as well. In addition, features such as closely-spaced controls, which are inconvenient for users with restricted mobility, are proscribed.

There are also guidelines for formatting on the page; use of technical features such as framing, which is frowned upon; and scripting. Government standards regarding information availability and accuracy are also included in the guidelines.

The guidelines will be mandatory for all new websites created from January 1, 2006, onwards, and for all existing sites from their latest full update before that date.

Some agencies will see this as a good move, says Bruce. Others will panic. Some agencies will also see the guidelines as limiting but, equally, some will appreciate the wide scope offered within the guidelines to construct sophisticated websites with no real limits imposed on able-bodied users, he says.

The SSC is seeking users and experts on accessibility, as well as others willing to become involved in a working group to advise on the future evolution of the guidelines. Indeed, there were appeals at the meeting for hints and “workarounds” to help agencies make their sites compliant in the easiest possible way.

One company representative at the meeting said 30% of the government sites the company has tested for WAI compliance already pass level 1.

"On one hand, that's encouraging but, on the other hand, it's disappointing that 70% don't yet comply."

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