Thousands of Websites; all are citizen centric; but are they accessible to all citizens – a review

17 Oct

Thousands of Websites; all are citizen centric; but are they accessible to all citizens – a review

Reproduced from CIS Accessibility Blog Thanks CIS for the opportunity.

Today, there are about 7800 Central and state government websites hosted by the National Informatics Centre (NIC). They are all certainly citizen centric – whether it is the Ministry of Finance, banks, the passport authority, educational board, transport, consumer affairs, or the most important website that generates revenue for the government – the Income Tax Department.

However, the question which we need to ask is whether these websites are up-to-date and accessible to everyone? Internet is often more useful to people who are elderly and for people having disabilities.

What does accessibility really mean? Accessibility is nothing but ensuring that information and functionality is available to all users including people with disabilities. The Accessibility Guidelines identify an accessible website as one which can be perceived, operated, understood and is robust. Today, thanks to the advancement of technology, people with disabilities are able to use computers and perform every task that others do. For example, a visually impaired person uses the screen reader to access the computer; a deaf blind user uses a refreshable Braille display, hearing impaired persons rely on captions to understand the multimedia, learning disabled users rely on image based content and elderly people prefer to see large fonts and so on. In addition, there are lots of features available in the browser itself. For instance, in Firefox, we can increase the font size by using key combination of CTRL and Plus and can also change the contrast of the page.

Having said that, website owners need to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 to enable people having disabilities and elderly persons to surf the web more effectively. In India, the Government of India and the state governments need to follow the Guidelines for Indian Government Websites (GIGW) formulated by NIC.

A brief survey of some 1500 of these websites revealed that barely one per cent of these meet the requirements of the above guidelines. Many of them are not up-to-date and some don’t even reflect government identity that could actually make users think of authentication.

The websites were checked for their elements and their mark-up; which means, audit was conducted to see text alternatives for non-text elements such as images, videos, buttons, etc. Other criteria were the presence of heading structures, associated labels for form fields, grouping of form elements, keyboard access for navigation, slide shows and other media, links and image maps. The test also checked to see if rich functionality works with keyboard and on text browsers; whether flash content works well with screen readers and documents are verified for accessibility; in addition, websites were checked for the color contrast.

The methodology used to test the websites was a combination of automated and manual testing. The initial testing was done using the automated evaluation tool WAVE, a Firefox add-on which checked for errors and features, structure, outline of the website, simulation of text version and simulation with no styles. This was followed by a manual check for appropriate text alternatives, heading structure, form labels, colour contrast, etc. The test revealed that most of the websites were not accessible, merely due to the lack of semantic mark up and common errors, some of which are described below:

  • No text alternatives for images – Without text alternatives, neither screen reader users nor search engines and those who disable display of the images on the browser can perceive information about the image.
  • No associated labels for form fields – Without associated labels, screen readers will treat the form fields as orphan form fields with no labels and read them as “unlabelled”fields. Hence, it will be impossible for visually impaired users to fill in those forms.
  • No heading structure defined – This would create an issue both for search engines as well as persons with disabilities. Assistive technologies such as screen readers usually have access keys for users to quickly navigate a page, which rely on the mark-up.
  • Deprecated Marquee has been used – This is a deprecated element in HTML and ought not be used anymore.
  • No keyboard functionality for flash content and drop down menus – Without keyboard support, people with mobility limitations and visually impaired or elderly users and those who do not wish to use the mouse cannot perceive the information.
  • Not enough government identity is present – It is GIGW’s requirement that all government websites should display government’s identity through emblems.
  • Several websites have poor color contrast – This will prevent people who are elderly and persons with low vision from easily identifying the content of a web page.
  • Several websites have used table based layouts – This is not the best practice to control the layout; one should use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).
  • Information is cluttered in some well known websites such as that of the Income Tax department – It will be difficult to perceive information easily by people who are elderly, who have low vision, have learning disabilities and those who surf the web through mobile devices.
  • Several websites do not have a mechanism to send feedback – It is again a GIGW requirement that every website should have such a mechanism.
  • There is no mechanism to skip the navigational module – This is an extremely useful feature to help screen readers and keyboard users to skip navigational links and directly access the main content.
  • No accessibility options such as large text or color schemes are provided – This would be helpful to less experienced users who are as yet unaware of in-built browser options.
  • Several forms do not have a mechanism for error handling – It is necessary to inform users about errors before submitting the form.
  • Several websites do not have appropriate page titles – Page titles help users to know where they are on their computer.
  • Many websites do not have site map – This is an easy way to have access to all the pages at one place.

Hence, there is a lot to be done to actually enable every citizen to use these citizen centric websites. There are guidelines in place at http://web.guidelines.gov.in and it’s time for every ministry to ensure successful implementation and to make their portals accessible to all.

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BySrinivasu Chakravarthula

I am an enthusiast of accessibility and classical music.

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