False accessibility claims on public sector websites

The UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) had their website redesigned and rebuilt earlier this year. Their specifications required the new website to be accessible. It isn’t. It is one of the stinkiest piles of dinosaur markup I have seen this year. It is truly a Failed Redesign.

I see this happening far too often here in Sweden as well. Most public sector organisations know that their site needs to be “accessible”, so they add that as a requirement in their specifications. The lowest bidder out of the IT consultancies that have a framework agreement tends to get the job, and since these consultancies generally are not equipped with knowledge of modern client-side web development, that’s when the trouble begins.

Since the consultancies building the sites barely know more about web standards and accessibility than the average person on the street, what gets delivered is more often than not old-school, invalid tag-soup, spiced up with layout tables and spacer gifs with helpful alt attributes. These days there also tends to be a lot of junk generated by the ASP.Net controls that programmers with poor understanding of front-end code love using.

Either way, the consultancy will claim that the site is accessible, and the public sector organisation paying for the site with our tax money takes their word for it. “Yeah sure, the server is up and running 24 hours a day, so it’s accessible all right. Oh, we added some alt tags for that blind guy who visits your site too.”

Ian Lloyd has more details on the specific case of the UK DTI in Crying Foul on Accessibility Claims. I like the subtitle: Or how not to waste tax-payers’ money on inaccessible sites or make grand claims on accessibility that you cannot fully back up.

In the same post Ian also mentions a trustmark issued by a privately held company. Trustmarks may be fine if they can actually be trusted to indicate a high quality, fully accessible site, but I am highly skeptical towards such things unless they come from an independent organisation. I have seen several examples of Swedish websites proudly stating that they have been certified by such-and-such accessibility consultancy, yet would not pass even a basic accessibility evaluation. I have previously voiced my opinion on that matter in Accessibility charlatans.

There’s more reading about the whole DTI mess in Bruce Lawson’s Stupid government websites, Fresh01’s redesign: more questions for the DTI and Dan Champion’s The DTI responds. Read those posts first to get the full background, then take a deep breath before reading a more recent response from the DTI in DTI responds to questions about their accessibility. Sit down for another deep breath before reading DTI: ‘Our blind guy can use it so it’s fine’, the latest post from Bruce on this.

I am at a loss for words.

Posted on October 2, 2006 in Accessibility


  1. This is so true. I’m currently employed by a public sector company here in Göteborg (but I’m not web designing for them), and their site is a perfect example of this. It’s just really bad when it comes to accessibility. And when I wrote a pretty extensive document for them, pointing this out (and actually recommended you to them if they wanted help), they were all more or less aware of the situation.

    I suspect it’s often a matter of money. They don’t have the resources to do a massive redesign, so they just build something barely better on top of what they allready have. Sad, but true as Metallica once put it :)

  2. On a semi-related note, check out http://www.arkansas.gov the text-only version. It’s frightening that not only are there hovers in the text only version, but they aren’t even working properly.

    This is the exchange I had with them a while ago:

    You are now speaking with Christy of Technical Support. Christy: I didn’t know that is wasn’t Christy: We use firefox here and don’t have any problems Jane: I’ll gladly email you a screenshot, if you’d like. Christy: sure Christy has left this session.

    She never provided me with an email to send her a screenshot.

  3. Wouldn’t it be a nice idea to setup a list of consultant agencies that have a track record of accessible websites? You probably have the contacts to do that. If you do I’d like to add Valtech to that list.

  4. @Emil: http://www.net-guide.co.uk/ may cover some of that sort of territory already.

  5. This is certainly very true. I have seen several projects where a bad outcome has arisen as a result of a flawed project process.

    Templates are completed to very high accessiblity standards and then handed to the back end team to implement the CMS. A very poor knowledge of XHTML results in multiple errors and accessiblity problems during this implementation. The results are not re-checked so these errors slip through.

    Sadly until someone is hauled up in court the attitudes of agencies and new media managers will remain unacceptable.

  6. Roger, well said.

    It’s our taxpayers money going to the private companies that aren’t up to the job. If they can’t meet the standards they’ve SAID they can meet, they shouldn’t get the taxpayers money. End of story.

  7. Oh, we added some alt tags for that blind guy who visits your site too.

    I particularly like the DTI’s alt attributes for their spacer gifs. Disable images on their site and watch as the stars come out.

    Thanks for pointing this out, Bruce and Dan’s campaign has made interesting reading!

  8. GAWDs - The Guild of Accessible Web Designers - http://www.gawds.org/ , are another group that can supply accessability expertise (Disclaimer: Member # 292)

  9. Focusing on the question of Failed Redesigns:

    In a previous life I was heading up the technical team of an agency that did a lot of online work for the DTI. I only spent a year at this particular agency before bailing out, but I can tell you what the DTI’s basic problem is - they see anything online as an IS/IT project, not a Comms or Marketing project.

    Nothing inherently wrong with this per se, but in many organisations (including the one I currently work for) this sets a presedence for the project, where the needs and constraints of IT/IS is the leading star and everything else comes second, including actual user needs, legislation and other ‘soft issues’. I’ve been in some really Kafka-esque meetings with various bods at the DTI, having to argue (and I’m a technologist!) the importance of obeying the law, adherance to best practice, and that compliant, expertedly crafted templates are EXACT INSTRUCTIONS, not a source of inspiration for the implementor - regardless of what any choosen CMS platform (in this case Percussion Rhythmyx) might or might not be configured to do or the skill-level of its operator.

    So until websites such as the DTI’s is wrangled from the grip of IS (who should be providing the infrastructure - full stop) and given to the people who understands communication (assuming here that they do) then we’ll be suffering many, many more sites like this.

  10. October 3, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Olof: Thanks for mentioning us :-). It’s true that it can be a question of resources, but it happens all too often that an organisation spends more money building a completely unaccessible and outdated website than a modern and accessible site would have cost them, had they chosen a knowledgeable partner.

    Yana: I guess they forgot to remove the JavaScript menu from the text-only version :-P.

    Emil: Tillgänglighetscentret has a list of Swedish consultancies that know how to build accessible websites, and Valtech is on it ;-).

    Phil: I didn’t notice those helpful alt texts for the spacer GIFs on the DTI site. That is hilarious - no, sad.

    Jakob: That’s a way too common problem when IS/IT run website projects. And unfortunately that problem is likely to be around for a long time.

  11. Wow, that site is perhaps the worst I’ve seen in quite some time. At the very minimum, it should have been run through Tidy. The use of tables is horrific. It must have been carried over from a WYSIWYG editor. Yuck (but very entertaining, none-the-less).

  12. @George: I know exactly where you are coming from. I am no accessibility expert but my CSS is good enough to no longer require tables and spacers, but created a whole set of templates for a government site, and ran as many tests against them as I could think of. They all passed :)

    I handed them to the backend coder, and it wasn’t his fault but .Net put in loads of rubbish that invalidated the code!

  13. October 12, 2006 by Lewis

    I read these comments with a sinking feeling! It’s so annoying when rubbish code comes from people who should know better, or at least care (even if they’re not expressly claiming compliance).

    I redesigned a school’s site in standards-compliant code that validated 100% and told the contractor it would be easily updated by hand using a text editor and clean markup (not difficult, I thought). After the site was handed over, the headmaster’s wife Dreamweavered it and now it’s peppered with layout tables and inline CSS. Having spent months stripping the content out of the original mish-mash of table cells I decided that no way would I be involved with it again and am pitying the poor sod who will have to, when accessibility is enshrined in UK law.

    Shortly after this, an agency I freelance for redesigned their site using Expression Engine, which does generate compliant XHTML. Eagerly I went to the W3C validator and entered the url: 80+ errors on the homepage alone, while claiming to comply with accessibility guidelines in their blurb, and actively pitching for work with schools. I guess they’re counting on the schools being totally ignorant about accessibility too…haha.

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