Making government accessibility, accessible
As the local council managing one of the country’s fastest-growing areas, Gold Coast City Council (GCCC) has found itself catering for an extremely varied group of residents. But one of the unusual characteristics of the local government area, according to Council’s data, is the fact that between 1998 and 2003, the number of residents with a disability rose 37 per cent to an estimated 105,200 people – around 20 per cent of the total population. That growth outpaced general population growth of around 20 per cent during the same period and highlighted for the increasingly online-focused Council just how important it is to ensure that online government resources are accessible to all.
To this end, every new council Website is carefully checked for compliance with the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, an exhaustive technical and best-practice guide (www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20) that sets out 106 different compliance standards for ensuring access by residents with vision or other impairments. GCCC’s Web Content Team uses a variety of testing tools to audit its content, including the Vision Australia Colour Contrast Checker, Powermapper’s SortSite accessibility testing tool, and independent page syntax tools ensuring proper use of elements such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).
“Accessibility has been identified as a priority requirement in all new Council Websites and the future upgrade of the Council corporate Website,” says Sharon Nicholls, GCCC’s Web Content and Design Supervisor. “All team members are now well versed in WCAG 2.0, and our Community Services branch has been very active in advocating and supporting the necessary changes. Some Websites require a complete redevelopment, while others may just require some template or style sheet changes.”
Backed by a policy requirement that government-related information be available to all residents, the push to improve Website accessibility has become a major initiative at all levels of government. This effort, typically handled on an ad hoc basis in the past, gained critical mass with AGIMO’s June mandate that organisations governed by the Financial Management and Accountability Act commence an exhaustive content review that will involve both upgrading content and introducing procedures to ensure WCAG 2.0 compliance across the board. Organisations covered by the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act bodies are also encouraged to participate.
At just 26 (sometimes sparse) pages, the Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy (WANTS) (www.finance.gov.au/publications/wcag-2-implementation/docs/wcag-transition-strategy.pdf) is lightweight by government standards. However, it sets out goals that Government Chief Information Officer Ann Steward admits are both ambitious and progressive. “Never before have we embarked upon such a significant effort to improve Website accessibility, delivered on a whole-of-government basis, with strengthened governance and reporting arrangements in-built,” she writes in her introduction to the strategy.
With Australian Bureau of Statistics figures suggesting one in five Australians identity as having a disability, WANTS is no niche mandate. Its Preparation Phase is wrapping up at the end of 2010; the Transition Phase will run through 2011; and by the end of 2012, all federal, state and territory Websites will be required to meet the minimum WCAG 2.0 conformance level, known as Level A, or ‘Single A’.
Federal sites will need to meet the stricter medium conformance level – Level AA, or ‘Double A’ – by the end of 2014. Depending on their terms of engagement, some agencies may even decide to pursue technically-rigorous Level AAA, or ‘Triple A’ standards, which ensure content is as accessible as possible to users relying on screen magnifiers, text-to-speech engines, external Braille readers, Website navigation helpers, and other tools.
“Everyone has a right to equal participation in government, and government business owners have to be aware they have a responsibility to provide that,” says Jacqui Begbie, Director of AGIMO’s Web accessibility policy. “We’re trying to change the paradigm and get agencies to build accessibility initially rather than trying to retrofit accessibility later on.”
It’s not the first time the government has indicated the importance of accessible content: accessibility requirements have been, on paper, a requirement of every e-government strategy set down since 2000, which was just months after the World W3C set down its first Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0, at www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10) back in May 1999. Many governmental Websites are now WCAG 1.0 compliant, but advancing Web complexity and often-fragmented enforcement policies mean that not every site is as accessible as it could be.
“I’ve never tested a site where I haven’t found over 15 accessibility errors,” says Gian Wild, a long-time accessibility consultant (www.gianwild.com.au) to bodies such as AGIMO and the Victorian government, who is now working on a WCAG 2.0 compliance testing tool in her role as manager for usability and accessibility services within Monash University’s Information Technology Services division.
“I’d like to think the AGIMO mandate will compel people to do the right thing, but I’ve seen them do the wrong thing time and time again. Often they don’t mean to do the wrong thing, but they tell developers to make sites accessible and developers say OK – but they never get an external review.”
Whereas WGAC 1.0 was a heavily technical standard – explaining, for example, the best way to mark up a document with image ALT tags that the computer can read aloud to visually-impaired users – WCAG 2.0 takes a more user-centric approach. Four core principles state that content should be ‘perceivable’, ‘operable’, ‘understandable’, and ‘robust’, with a dozen guidelines clarifying success criteria and conformance to these guidelines driving certification at A, AA or AAA levels.
Despite relatively clear targets and the availability of substantial guidelines, real-world WCAG compliance has been sketchy at best, thanks to widely varying competence amongst Web developers charged with accessible design.
“Everyone knows these guidelines are out there, but at the end of the day, people talk about projects, and priorities tend to be on meeting deadlines,” says Kim Chatterjee, a Usability Consultant with Web design firm Stamford Interactive who has worked with numerous government agencies to improve their sites’ accessibility. “It’s not even part of the conversation when people are taught IT skills, and it takes a bit of learning for developers to understand who their users are and how they behave.”
Imparting accessibility awareness can be difficult, but once developers are put out of their comfort zones, they quickly understand why it’s important, Chatterjee says. In one exercise, she tasked developers with navigating their Websites – after turning off their monitors. “There’s a big assumption about what blind people might experience,” she explains. “But doing this provides really good insight; all of a sudden, designers understand what patience is.”
To work most effectively, accessibility needs to be a core consideration of any Web content work that’s being done going forward. This typically requires not only internal competence in accessibility design and testing, but also supporting workflow processes that underscore efforts such as the Queensland Government’s CUE (Consistent User Experience) standard (www.qld.gov.au/web/cue/overview/), which is getting a major update to version 3 after a major review in 2010.
Many large, public-facing departments such as the Department of Immigration & Citizenship, the ATO, Centrelink and others have already created dedicated accessibility teams where responsibility for vetting and controlling content have been formalised. “We recognise that making Web content accessible is good practice in terms of general usability, and we take the issue of Web accessibility very seriously,” says Rick Moloney, National Manager of Online Communication within Centrelink’s Human Services Portfolio.
That portfolio, which includes thousands of pages of content across Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency, is pushing forward with plans to support assistive technologies and design best practices such as keyboard shortcuts, video captions, high-visibility colour and contrast, easier Website navigation, and clearer content.
“Meeting the WCAG 2.0 timelines will be a challenge for government agencies,” Moloney adds, “particularly those with a broad range of online transactional services such as Centrelink. However, we are confident we will meet all of the requirements in time, and in collaboration with AGIMO, we have already commenced the business planning necessary to ensure a successful transition to the new standards.”
One major challenge in the WANTS mandate is the sheer volume of content – which must be audited and triaged to determine whether it should be removed, archived, or updated to WCAG 2.0 compliance. This can be a major effort: deprecated HTML standards, improperly structured headings, poor layout, nonstandard scripting and other design compromises can easily frustrate accessibility efforts. Multimedia, such as PDF documents and videos, poses other challenges, since players and readers must also be made accessible.
Many of the content considerations that must be made in accessibility efforts are also similar to those necessary to make content accessible from mobiles – and with most departments at least considering strategies for mobile-enabling their sites, the timing of the mandate may prove to be fortuitous. “There is a lot of overlap,” says Wild.
With the end of the Preparation Phase upon them, government agencies are staring down the year-long process that is the Transition Phase. And while they’re not covered by AGIMO’s mandate, many local governments and state departments are taking the WANTS effort as impetus to review their own accessibility strategies.
By 2015, all going well, online government should be as accessible to all Australians as is possible using current technology, says Begbie – but there is still a lot of work to be done. “Some agencies are well and truly down the track and have all the answers, while others are just embarking on this now,” she explains. “We’re here to help agencies work through this and find solutions; if something is a problem in one agency, chances are that it’s occurring in other agencies as well. Ultimately, we just want people to be able to come to government Websites and be able to find what they want.”
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