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 There are 65 checkpoints, many of which are not only out-of-date, but also preclude the use of technology such as content-management systems, because most of these offerings fail to handle valid HTML.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.
But this is not to say that small changes cannot make an immediate difference. For example, adding meaningful alt tags to describe images makes life easier for people using screen-readers and requires very little outlay. The same applies to ensuring text can be resized in browsers and that colours can be changed. This is useful not only for people with dyslexia who can have problems reading black text on a white background, but also for those with red and green colour blindness.
The next step, meanwhile, is to create an action plan, bearing in mind that large companies in particular have complicated sites that cannot be upgraded all at once. "It's not reasonable to expect to fix everything in a month. Sorting out large websites with complex back-end systems will take more like two or three years," says Moss.
Accessibility requires a rethink of how web teams operate to make it a sustainable proposition. Coders and designers need to be trained to understand and implement the relevant concepts or expertise has to be brought in from outside. Procedures have to be introduced to ensure new additions to the site do not result in the organisation going back to square one.
Content must also be comprehensible and structured for easy reading. This necessity is often forgotten, and involves encouraging editorial staff to follow web-writing guidelines, which include breaking text up into manageable chunks and introducing only one idea per paragraph.
Accessibility also requires buy-in from senior management to motivate the workforce and counter any resistance to change, and this is where budgets can be an issue. Christopherson indicates that organisations can expect to pay a supplement of between 2 and 5 percent to ensure accessibility. These extra costs are likely to accrue from the need for more hand-coding, because "someone might not be able to use their content-management system in a completely Wysiwyg way", and because of the imperative for qualitative testing using real people with disabilities.
While automated tools can check for compliance against some of the WCAG checkpoints, according to Alun David, managing director of consultancy Linktec Solutions: "They can't check everything by any stretch of the imagination, much less than 50 percent" and therefore need to be supplemented by real-world testers.
As to where IT managers can go to obtain help and advice when embarking on a project of this type, a good place to start is the DRC website to download a free copy of the PAS 78 guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites.
The DRC asked the British Standards Institute to create the specification, which was written earlier in the year by Julie Howell, former digital policy officer at the Royal National Institute for the Blind, and was peer reviewed by a steering group.
"It's about trying to fill a gap. There's ignorance out there on the technical side, but the people commissioning websites know even less and they're the ones that are legally liable," says DRC's Beesely. "You can never say that if you follow the guidelines to the letter, you'll be fire-proof, but if you do, you'll be way ahead of the pack."
Other places to go for help include the Guild of Accessible Web Designers", a global association of accessible web designers and developers who promote accessible web design standards, and the Association of Accessibility Professionals. This is an industry-based working group that is developing an accreditation scheme for website design organisations.
Despite the effort creating an accessible website entails, however, there are huge benefits to be gained from going down this route. In addition to addressing legal obligations and meeting growing ethical and corporate social responsibility concerns, the DRC points out that obtaining a single A performance rating has the bonus of increasing mainstream usability by 35 percent.
But there are other important commercial advantages. For example, Legal & General experienced a 95 percent increase in online sales following its revamp, which cost a comparatively meagre £200,000. This revenue boost, combined with reduced maintenance fees, meant that the financial services giant achieved a return on investment in only five months compared with the 12 months it had expected.
The jump in sales, meanwhile, was likely to be brought about by a number of factors. Following recommendations about using semantic HTML and cascading style sheets, as well as separating presentation from content, tends to increase website rankings for well-known search engines. This is because these search engines are no better at reading web pages - and particularly not poorly written ones with lots of Flash - than the average reader.
Applying such technologies and techniques also makes website maintenance easier and means sites are easier to access using a range of different devices, such as PDAs and mobile phones.
"There are 10 million people with disabilities in the UK, six million with dyslexia, untold millions with literacy problems and an ageing population. So there's a huge potential audience that could benefit from making websites more accessible, particularly in today's increasingly competitive online climate," says AbilityNet's Christopherson.