OPSI daisy

Apparently our favourite automated accessibility testing company, SiteMorse, has been working with the Office of Public Sector Information (external link)(OPSI) to make the OPSI website accessible. The impressive press release at e-consultancy (external link) tells us that the site is "accessible to all", that OPSI are aiming for AAA compliance, and that SiteMorse is part of the ideal solution for them to achieve it.

John Sheridan, who heads up the OPSI, goes so far as to say:

Automated testing was the obvious answer as it can check thousands of pages and site journey permutations in minutes, saving time and resources compared to manual testing. Of course there is still a need for manual testing for areas that cannot be checked automatically, e.g. images matching alternative text tags.

After reading the press release you'd be forgiven for thinking that the OPSI site must be a paragon of accessibility, representing the very best current practice and thinking around web accessibility. Sadly you'd be wrong. Sure it's better than many central government websites, but as I've documented here in the past that's not a very difficult thing to achieve.

I only spent 10 minutes on the OPSI site, but here are a list of the serious accessibility problems I identified in that short time (and which were obviously not picked up by SiteMorse):

These are all basic errors which any developer with an understanding of accessibility and web standards issues would have avoided during the design and build phases of site development.

The intention here isn't to pillory the OPSI. They've got a vast range of information across thousands of pages which they are trying to make as accessible as possible. The problem is that, like many local authorities (external link), they appear to have been seduced into thinking that the way to achieve accessibility is to run automated tests, then pick up the pieces. This approach is fundamentally flawed. Fixing the things found by automated software does not make an inaccessible site accessible.

Accessibility must be built in from the start, and that obviously requires an understanding of what makes an accessible site. The answer is to invest in your own knowledge of accessibility (buy some books, visit some forums, subscribe to some mailing lists) and to apply that knowledge and understanding to the design and build of your website. Then use the W3C validator (external link), and a free tool like TAW3 (external link) which are extremely helpful for finding typos rather than fundamental grammatical errors), and finally get some users to test it. Just don't believe the SiteMorse hype.

Thanks to Isolani (external link) for the OPSI/SiteMorse link.


I completely agree. It's sad that the mentality of many developers seems to be that receiving a pass from an automated test is the way to 'achieve superior accessibility'. The quick test with just the minimum amount of effort to receive the pass is all the justification needed for the developer. Sad.

Like you've stated, what is lacking is the deeper understanding of accessibility standards. Where the amount of time invested by the developer in improving a site should not simply be about passing an automated test and tableless design, but first doing some serious research into accessibility standards. A little planning in the beginning of a design project makes all the difference in the end product.

And the fact that this is a Public Sector site is even worse.

Posted by: Marco at May 15, 2006 5:07 PM

There should be a Hall of Shame website for these things.

I find it ironic that in "Whats New" they have an item "OPSI leaflet explaining how OPSI can help public sector organisations unlock the potential of their information" - its a direct link to a PDF file. How about unlocking that?
Does Sitemorse check accessibility of Acrobat files?

Posted by: Doug at May 16, 2006 10:34 AM

Yet again, Dan, you've run your mouth without checking your facts first. The OPSI *know* their site has accessibility issues - they've chosen to use SiteMorse because it *does* find many of the problems. The press release is about how they are determined to improve their site, not a boast about how wonderful it is now. You should be encouraging them. I await your apology.

In response to Doug's comment above, PDF files are not inherently inaccessible. Yes, SiteMorse does have facilities to help check the accessibility of PDF files.

Posted by: Jon Ribbens at May 18, 2006 11:08 AM

Jon, two things. Firstly why the "yet again"? On what other occasions have I "run my mouth" (whatever that means) without checking the facts first (apart from here, but I later retracted that)?

Secondly, I'll certainly apologise for misunderstanding the press release, although it was pretty equivocal about whether the OPSI site is pre- or post-accessibility review. And given that on the front page it states "Welcome to the new website of the Office of Public Sector Information" I stand by most of what I've written above. If this is their new website it should have been made accessible before launch.

I'm sure a run through SiteMorse will identify some of those problems, and will improve the site as a result. But not most of the problems as you claim. The vast majority of the problems come from a lack of understanding on accessibility, not from oversights or typographical coding errors, will remain undetected by SiteMorse and will require manual identification.

Edit: Well, having run OPSI through SiteMorse it gets an accessibility score of 8 out of 10, and it picks up just one of the accessibility problems I found in 10 minutes, namely the lack of associated labels. Draw your own conclusions.

Posted by: Dan at May 18, 2006 12:56 PM

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