Apparently our favourite automated accessibility testing company, SiteMorse, has been working with the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) to make the OPSI website accessible. The impressive press release at e-consultancy 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):
- Links are distinguished by colour alone
- Text contrast is very low in some areas
- Placeholder text is used in form fields
- Forms accept submission of placeholder values
- Form controls have no related labels
- Search results are horribly unstructured
- Skip to content link is hidden using display:none
- The target for the skip to content link doesn't have IE "layout"
- There's no focus or active styling on links
- The discussion forums are riddled with HTML errors
- Non-semantic markup is frequently used, for example the list of years for UK statutory instruments is presented as a series of paragraphs
- The site breaks when the text size is increased 2 steps at 800x600 and 1024x768
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 , 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 , and a free tool like TAW3 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 for the OPSI/SiteMorse link.