Disability Discrimination on Lawyers’ Web Sites

May 30, 2008

The results of a survey of 1,500 professional services Web sites and their accessibility by PWS Ltd have been published. The survey was carried out carried out between September 2007 and April 2008. The findings are worrying and suggest that the sector¡¦s awareness of disability issues is declining rather than increasing as might have been expected.

According to PWS, there were a few isolated pockets of excellence: a handful of firms now boast beautifully designed, standards compliant and highly accessible websites. However, the vast majority failed to meet even the lowest levels of accessibility. Some were near misses which could, without a great deal of effort, be brought up to the mark. Most were not well built and/or maintained. A small number were so poor that they were completely inaccessible. Ted Page of PWS said ¡¥You might possibly expect this from very old websites, but astonishingly one was launched whilst the survey was in progress¡¦.

Measuring Accessibility

Each firm was assessed against the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the internationally recognised standard for web accessibility. WCAG defines three levels of compliance:
„X Level 1 includes criteria that sites must satisfy
„X Level 2 includes criteria that sites should satisfy
„X Level 3 includes criteria that sites may satisfy
Compliance at level 2 is a good standard of accessibility. Level 1 is certainly of practical value, even though some people will experience difficulty accessing some content. Level 3 can provide useful additional features but, according to Ted Page, in reality it is almost impossible to achieve. PWS has yet to see a fully level 3 compliant site, during the course of the survey or anywhere else.

Main Survey Findings

PWS found that 13.1 per cent of the sites surveyed complied with WCAG to level 1, but only 2.6 per cent complied to level 2. The remainder, 84.3 per cent, failed to meet any level of accessibility. For more detail, visit http://www.pws-ltd.com/sections/articles/2008/survey.html

By far the most common fault causing failure at level 1 was the absence of text equivalents for images (¡¥alt text¡¦). This was the result of both poor site design and/or poor content maintenance.

The second most common fault was bad JavaScript coding. In the worst cases poor coding caused entire navigation systems to vanish when JavaScript was disabled. Estimates vary as to how many site visitors will have JavaScript disabled or otherwise unavailable, but the lowest is usually around 5%. We uncovered many other JavaScript problems which caused accessibility problems to varying degrees.

Given that a high proportion of professional services firms make extensive use of PDFs on their websites, PWS also assessed each firm for the accessibility of any PDF content it may have published. It found that 29.6% of the sites surveyed contained inaccessible PDFs. These days it is relatively straightforward to make most PDF content fully accessible. Nevertheless, fewer than 1% of the sites surveyed had added any accessibility features to their PDFs.

Ted Page  commented ¡¥Surprisingly, we found that 4.2% of the surveyed sites were built using frameset technology (which was well past its sell by date by the turn of the century). In addition to poor accessibility, frameset-based sites rank poorly in search engines and cannot be viewed at all in devices such as a Blackberry¡¦.

Other common problems included inaccessible forms and data tables, poor typography ¡V tiny fonts and ¡¥justified¡¦ (actually, pseudo-justified) text, poor colour contrast, lack of properly formatted headings, and tables used for layout purposes.

¡¥We came across three sites that were 100 per cent accessibility lock-outs¡¦ said Ted Page. ¡¥Two of these were built entirely with Flash technology. In recent years Adobe (manufacturer of Flash) has made great advances in making Flash potentially accessible. However, if done badly, as it was in these two cases, it can be terminal. The third site was a barristers’ chambers’ website which was constructed entirely from pictures of text, thereby locking out all non-sighted visitors (including Google)¡¦.

The proportion of inaccessible websites identified in this survey may seem high. However, the results are similar to the findings of a 2004 survey by the former Disability Rights Commission (DRC). The DRC commissioned a survey of the websites of 1,000 organisations in the UK. It found that over 80% failed to meet even the lowest levels of accessibility. Just two sites complied with WCAG to level 2.