Almost every government website in Europe fails to meet basic standards for accessibility, a study shows.
The report by the UK Cabinet Office found that 97% of official sites were unusable by disabled people, largely because they ignored well-known techniques for making data accessible.
This is despite attempts by governments to put more services online.
The study found that the best stimulus to making sites accessible were legal penalties for non-compliance.
The report was produced by the e-Government Unit of the Cabinet Office.
It was released to coincide with the UK's EU Presidency and surveyed 436 public service websites across many European nations.
According to the study, 48.1% of Europe's population of 460 million people use the net and approximately 39 million people in Europe have some form of disability.
Many governments and public agencies have championed the net as a way for many disabled people to get at information and services they would otherwise struggle to access.
But the survey found that only 3% of the sites it looked at passed basic tests on accessibility set down by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These ensure that the data in web pages can be translated by software into a form usable by deaf, blind or otherwise disabled people.
The test regime involved checking the 436 sites using software utilities that look behind the scenes to ensure webpages match good practice as well as manual visits to ensure sites are easy to navigate around.
Of the 97% that failed:
- 10% passed automatic checks but failed one or more manual checks
- 17% failed automatic checks once or more
- 70% consistently failed automatic checks
Common problems suffered by the poorly accessible sites involved insufficient use of descriptive tags to label images and other screen furniture to help software readers work out what they are.
Others failed to properly label frames to let software know what information a particular page held. Still others used invalid website code to create their pages.
The e-Government Unit report also found that there was no link between how sophisticated online services were and whether they met the accessibility standards.
It put forward a series of recommendations to help improve the performance of government websites.
It recommended the setting of a clear target for all government websites to meet basic W3C standards by 2010. It also said websites should be tested more regularly to ensure they comply.
It also said that studies should be carried out to see if it was worth creating a basic accessible website qualification to drive awareness of the issue.
The Royal National Institute of the Blind, AbilityNet, Dublin City University and Socitm Insight and the Royal National Institute of the Deaf collaborated on the survey.