The case of the 'inaccessible' accessibility report
Parliament and government are failing to produce digital documents that provide basic levels of accessibility to disabled people such as blind people using text-to-speech screenreaders, a series of recent cases has shown.
Today, a new Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) report on ICT for disabled people (POSTnote 411) is being showcased at an event held at the House of Commons. But the report itself was initially released in a format that does not meet standards for accessibility.
Like many official documents, it was published in Adobe pdf, a format designed to be viewable and printable the same on any device. The files can be made accessible, but they need to be structured and created in the right way for screen-reader users to access the underlying plain text - which this one, and many others like it, have not been.
Ted Page, Director of web accessibility specialists PWS, said there were many different problems with the document rendering it inaccessible. "The reading order is incorrect in a number of places, so for example for screen reader users, the footer on page one comes near the top of the document, and all the endnotes appear together near the bottom of page two rather than at the end of the document. All links and email addresses only work when clicked with a mouse, but are not keyboard operable.
"The document contains images that have no text alternatives, such as the Houses of Parliament logo. The main document heading is not marked as such, and there is incorrect use of structural elements such as lists and tables."
The problems seem bad, but could all be rsolved in less than an hour, Page said. And shortly after publication, POST did pledge to fix the problem. Dr Chandrika Nath, the office's deputy director, told UKAuthority.com: "The irony of producing a POST note on technologies for the disabled which is itself not accessible has not escaped us. This note will be in an accessible format by the end of Friday 6 July; Parliament is aiming for accessibility standard AA on its website but we are not there yet."
The case follows a report in this month's E-Access Bulletin newsletter of inaccessible information received by an MP's constituent who is blind, when she wrote to him with an enquiry about the government's recent draft Communications Data Bill.
The MP, David Lidington, duly wrote to the minister overseeing the draft bill, James Brokenshire, for a response to the queries from Wendy Sharpe. He received back a hard copy letter (yes, a paper letter - remember those?). Lidington's office scanned in this letter and emailed it back to Sharpe, to whom as a screenreader user it was no use whatsoever (scanned letters are images, not text that can be read out).
When Sharpe raised the matter with Lidington's staff they were able to obtain a digital text-only copy of the letter from the Home Office for her, and she does not blame her MP: "It clearly isn't my MP's fault that scanned documents are distributed in this way".
But Sharpe's travails didn't end there: ironically, when she tried to access the draft Communications Data Bill itself, she was directed to a .pdf file which, when she attempted to open it, simply read: "empty file".
A report on digital accessibility, a draft law about communication and correspondence about the problem: all inaccessible. Disability campaigners are beginning to wonder when the government is going to start abiding by the Equality Act 2010?