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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 April, 2004, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Websites 'failing' disabled users
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

Image of accessibility icons
Stuck on the hard shoulder of the information superhighway

An investigation by the Disability Rights Commission shows that more than 80 percent of websites are unusable by disabled people.

This means that many everyday activities carried out on the internet - booking a holiday, managing a bank account, buying theatre tickets or finding a cheaper credit card - are difficult or impossible for many disabled people.

Bert Massie, DRC Chairman described the situation as "unacceptable", and said the organisation was determined not to allow disabled people to be left behind by technology.

Provide text equivalents for non-text elements
Ensure good colour contrast between foreground and background
Pages must be usable when scripts and applets are turned off or not supported
Avoid movement in pages
Avoid pop-ups and don't change window without telling the user
Divide large blocks of information into manageable chunks
Clearly identify the target of each link
Use the clearest and simplest language possible
A thousand websites were tested for the survey using automated software, and detailed user testing was carried out on 100 sites, including government, business, e-commerce, leisure and web services such as search engines.

The results showed that the worst affected group were those with visual impairments.

Blind people involved in testing websites were unable to perform nearly all of the tasks required of them despite using devices such as screen readers.

"The web has been around for 10 years, yet within this short space of time it has managed to throw up the same hurdles to access and participation by disabled people as the physical world," said Mr Massie.

"It is an environment that could be made more accommodating to disabled people at a relatively modest expense."

Mr Massie warned website owners to improve accessibility or be prepared to face legal action.

The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act requires information providers to make their services accessible.

Businesses have a social responsibility as well as a legal duty
Julie Howell, RNIB
The problems most commonly encountered by the disabled website testers were cluttered pages, confusing navigation, failure to describe images and poor colour contrast between background and text.

Researchers at London's City University, who carried out the study for the DRC, also found that many web developers were unaware of what needed to be done to make sites accessible.

Photo of Helen Petrie
Helen Petrie says accessibility is a creative challenge
Professor Helen Petrie, who led the work at City University said websites don't have to sacrifice slick design in order to be more accessible.

"Web developers should regard accessibility as another challenge for creativity and innovation and not a barrier," she told BBC News Online.

The university has also come across examples of excellence in inclusive web design, from internet bank, Egg, to Spinal Injuries Scotland.

"The Spinal Injuries Scotland site highlights how an accessible website can be created on a small budget and still be lively and colourful," said Prof Petrie

"Egg's site shows larger firms can embrace accessibility without compromising their corporate image or losing any sophistication from their e-services."

Government should act

Welcoming the report, the Royal National Institute of the Blind said there was a clear need for government to raise awareness of the issue.

"Businesses have a social responsibility as well as a legal duty to ensure that disabled people can use their websites," said Julie Howell, RNIB spokesperson.

The organisation provides advice on how to make websites more user friendly, and is planning a series of events to raise awareness of the needs of disabled web users around the UK.

There are signs that some website owners are getting the accessibility message.

Left-wing magazine, New Statesman, recently announced that it was making its web pages available as speech by using new software called Browsealoud.

The system was developed by Northern Ireland-based Texthelp Systems.

The company hopes that its system will soon be more widely adopted especially by government sites.

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