Fewer than a third of UK council websites accessible to disabled people

Fewer than a third of council websites in the UK is currently accessible for disabled people, according to new research on web accessibility.

A total of 134 of the 416 council websites in the UK passed the Socitm (society for IT practitioners in the public sector) Better Connected stage two accessibility test, carried out in December 2016 with the Digital Accessibility Centre.

The test takes a full range of disabled users into account, including those who have keyboard only access and those who are blind or have low vision and are working with assistive technologies like screen readers.

website icon showing computer screen with ticks next to content

A lower level stage one test, designed to identify websites that would fail the full test, was done first. Overall, 275 sites passed this. Next, Socitm Insight member councils - a higher performing group than all councils – if successful at the first stage, were selected for testing at stage two. This saw 195 council sites tested with a pass rate of 69%. The previous year, that figure was 77%.

A statement by Soctim suggested the result was not as negative as it first appeared. “These results should not be read as a deterioration, however, because different, and arguably more difficult tasks were tested this year. In particular, to pass ‘order a bulky waste collection’ which was a test conducted on a mobile device, sites had to offer an online order form (not a pdf) and further, that order form and its associated payment module (as well as the site overall) had to be responsive.” It added that improvements had been made in other areas of council websites.

The Better Connected process tests sites against 14 criteria that are in line with the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.

Most common reasons council websites fail accessibility tests - desktop

Unclear labels for form fields and/or associated controls

No visible working skip links – these were either not visible when tabbed to, or did not having the correct markup in order to skip a user to the main content within the page

Illogical heading structure – for those using screen reading software, jumping from heading to heading enables them to get an overall impression of a page’s content. This is problematic if headings have not been created with this in mind

Moving content without a means to pause or stop

No visible link focus on tab - This was an issue with desktop and mobile versions of sites. When keyboard-only users tab through a page they often become lost, making tasks difficult to complete. The issue seems to appear on websites designed to work more effectively in Internet Explorer 9 and above. It caused several sites to score no more than one on some or all tasks.

Most common reasons council websites fail mobile accessibility test

No online form available – this means some users with disabilities cannot complete the task because they cannot use the phone or email.

Sometimes forms were available but were themselves not responsive, or there was a non-responsive payment module.

Where forms presented as non-HTML documents, users with disabilities often that they are not able to access them. Soctim said that councils should try to: use HTML pages as an alternative; if they are used, ensure that non-HTML documents are accessible; on any page where such a non-HTML page is used, include a link to the appropriate reader plug-in page

The site was not responsive or otherwise purposed for mobile access. When sites are purposed for mobile, there is usually more limited content, which is then easier to find on a small screen. The content will also be larger so that users with low vision do not have to magnify as much of the screen as would be necessary if they had a full desktop screen presented to them in a limited space.

‘Bleedthrough’ - where content not present on the screen was picked up and read out by screenreaders, this prevents content being reached in sequence, confusing the user’s progress through the task

How councils can improve the accessibility of their websites

Councils were advised to offer forms for reporting, applying, booking, and contacting the council, since some users with disabilities will be unable to communicate by phone or use email because of its unstructured format. Forms themselves must be responsive so that they are usable from mobile devices.

Mandatory fields were problematic if notified to users via an asterisk or notified in text. Notification also needs to be within the <label> so that screen reader users are also aware of the need to complete the field.

Visible labels that are easy to identify benefit all web users who are able to see them. Screen reader users also need to be able to identify and use form inputs. Most modern screen readers will automatically switch to ‘forms’ mode when focus is shifted to a form element, and back to ‘virtual cursor’ mode when focus shift to non-form elements. It is important that descriptive Labels or instructions are provided when content requires user input, sais the report. 

Need help with making your website accessible? Try our Digital Accessibility Services.

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