When the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) undertook a survey of over 1,000 UK websites in 2004, it found that eight out of 10 across all industry sectors failed to comply with even basic accessibility standards.
In other words, a mere 19 percent managed to conform with the most elementary level of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) by achieving a single A performance rating.
But another study undertaken last year for the Cabinet Office by AbilityNet, a charity that provides a range of services to help disabled people exploit computers and the internet more effectively, revealed that the situation had improved little. Of the 1,300 public sector websites across Europe that it examined, only a miniscule 3 percent gained that elusive single A rating, although 17 percent were very close.
So what's going on? The WCAG standards have been around since May 1999 and the Disability Discrimination Act was passed four years before that, so why do neither appear to be having much effect? One of the issues is simply awareness. Although this has increased over recent times, particularly among large corporates and organisations in the public sector, it is still pretty poor. "There's more awareness of the issues now, but it's still not necessarily translating into good practice. Like many things, people think it doesn't affect them per se or that litigation will [never] happen to them," says Stephen Beesley, the DRC's software development manager.
Nonetheless, Robin Christopherson, head of accessibility services at AbilityNet, points out that there is a lot of legal action "flying around at the moment" behind the scenes, although organisations are settling out of court to avoid negative publicity and to escape setting the first UK legal precedent.
"I'd imagine an initial conviction against a high-street name would be the most likely thing and it will shake things up a lot. But there'll continue to be an evolution of awareness and expertise and general knowledge about the area and there are pockets of expertise in organisations now," adds Beesley.
Another problem, however, is that the W3C standards are difficult to comply with in the real world. There are 65 checkpoints, many of which are not only out-of-date, but also preclude the use of technology such as content-management systems, because most of these offerings fail to handle valid HTML.
To make matters worse, the guidelines are also quite loose and therefore tricky for the average developer, let alone the layperson, to interpret — a situation not helped by too many so-called experts claiming knowledge where they have little or none. And the imminent appearance of version 2.0 of WCAG is not expected to make life any easier.
"One problem with the first set of guidelines is that they became outdated quite soon, so what the W3C tried to do with the second was to make them technology-neutral to last longer. But looking at the draft, they're now so vague and generalised that they're even more difficult to apply correctly," says Trenton Moss, director of consultancy Webcredible.
Moreover, the appearance of new interactive technologies in the guise of Web 2.0 is expected to add yet more challenges to what is already a complex area. While it is already tricky to ensure the accessibility of complex transactional websites such as those found in the travel industry, the deployment of Web 2.0 technologies such as user-generated content and Ajax will make this almost impossible, in the short to medium term at least.
"Web 2.0 won't close the door, but it will make creating accessible websites fraught with many more potential pitfalls and you'll really have to keep your eye on the accessibility ball all the way through to make an accessible product at the end," Christopherson warns.
He cites the experience with Flash as a case in point. "It was sexy so a lot of people used it initially for navigation, but it closed the door on a lot of disabled people," he says. "It embedded an object in a page so a lot of accessibility technologies couldn't see anything, but as it progressed, it became more sophisticated. There's always a lag while accessibility technologies catch up, but thankfully the initial enthusiasm for Flash is now over."
While technologies such as Ajax are never likely to take over the internet, they are likely to mean that those organisations serious about accessibility will need to think carefully about how to deploy them and may even need to create alternative accessible versions of their sites.
So given this raft of contentious issues, what can IT managers do to ensure they keep within the law, not least for risk-management purposes?
According to Ben Logan, director at consultancy Spotless Design, the first thing to remember when either setting up a new website or undertaking a redesign is that accessibility — and the desired level of compliance — needs to be factored in from the outset, as it is difficult to retrofit effectively.