Councils slip in website accessibility tests

New Better Connected survey shows small decline from previous test – and prompts warning of need to match standards of EU directive

Four in 10 local government websites are not accessible to people with disabilities, including those using assistive technologies, according to the latest survey under the Better Connected programme.

Finger on keyboardTesting of 270 UK council websites completed last month found that only 60% of home pages were accessible to people with disabilities, a small deterioration on last year’s stage one test, when 65% of the councils passed.

Better Connected, which is owned by public sector IT association Socitm and run in partnership with Boilerhouse Media, had the tests carried out by the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC), using automated tools and manual checking. This was based on its view that some shortcomings can only be identified by a manual check.

The stage one test examines home pages only on the 14 testing criteria used in the full Better Connected test.

Most of the council websites that failed the stage one accessibility test did so primarily because their home page lacked ‘visible focus indicators’ that highlight links, tabs and other key elements. The absence of these indicators means that keyboard-only users cannot navigate the website, find content, or determine where they are on a page or application.

Skip link absence

Another common failure was the absence of ‘skip links’, mainly used by screen reader users for bypassing or 'skipping' over repetitive web page content. While this absence would fall foul of WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards, and would have failed in last year’s Better Connected test, DAC regards it as ‘inconvenient’ rather that ‘difficult’ in terms of completing a journey.  

Many showed a lack of ‘meaningful links in context’. This affects blind users who use screen reading software and need links to establish the context of some words – which links such as ‘click here’ or ‘more’ do not.

In addition, a third of the sites failing were marked down because of movement on the screen, which affects cognitive-impaired, dyslexic and low vision users, as well as blind users who use screen reading software.

If there is movement of any kind on the page that lasts for more than five seconds then a user, including keyboard and mouse users, should be able to apply a pause. As with skip links, while absence of such tools would fall foul of WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards, DAC regards this as inconvenient rather than ‘difficult’ in terms of completing a journey and not sufficient on its own to constitute a task fail.

Common shortcomings were also noted in heading structure (with only 63% passing), appropriate text alternatives for images (39%), sufficient colour contrast (49%), and clear labelling and instructions for forms (36%).

Regulatory demands

The results prompted Better Connected to warn that the councils affected need to fix their sites ahead of a new EU directive – covering the accessibility of public sector websites and mobile apps – coming into force from September 2019. Although the UK is on course to have left the EU by then it will provide a benchmark for website accessibility in public services.

It also said that some sites may already be in breach of the Equality Act 2010, and that accessibility cannot be guaranteed by coders or third party site designers (although specifications for items they provide should require these to be accessible). It requires content editors to be aware of how they may inadvertently create accessibility barriers, such as adding images with no ‘alternative text’ or links like ‘click here’ that may not be meaningful when read out by a screen reader.

Every member of the DAC user testing team has a disability, among them visual impairment, dyslexia, mobility impairment and learning disabilities.

The test was stage one of a wider ranging accessibility test that will be completed later in the year.

Image by Andy Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0 through flickr