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