United Nations Global Audit of Web Accessibility

Few leading Web sites worldwide meet basic accessibility guidelines.

Larisa Thomason

The United Nations recently commissioned a Web accessibility study that validated the anecdotal evidence people with disabilities have offered for years. Most Web sites have accessibility problems. In fact, many sites don’t even fulfill the most basic accessibility requirement: ALT text on images.

The UN study audited the accessibility of 100 leading Web sites from 20 countries. (Request an executive summary of the report.) The results were startling to many – but not to people with visual or physical problems. For years, they’ve been frustrated by inaccessible sites.

Their aggravation is understandable once you look at some of the results.

  • ALT text descriptions:93% did not provide adequate text descriptions for graphical content, causing problems for visually impaired people.
  • Poor contrast: 78% used foreground and background colour combinations with poor contrast, making it difficult for people with mild visual conditions such as colour blindness to read information.
  • Improper (or no) header tags: 89% failed to use the correct technique for conveying document structure through the use of headings, making page navigation awkward for many visually impaired people.
  • Inadequate link text: 97% used link text that did not clearly indicate the destination of the link, causing confusion for people with learning difficulties.

Ok. So some of the other findings – like using JavaScript for important functionalities – may be harder to bring into compliance. But ALT text descriptions? Header tags? Descriptive link text? Readability?

What were the designers thinking when they put these sites together? This is basic design that affects every user and costs sites money in lost sales and customer goodwill. If people can’t access your information and use your shopping cart, they sure won’t buy your products.

And, as AOL found out, they may just sue you for good measure. In 1999, the National Federation of the Blind sued AOL because, among other problems, the company’s software was incompatible with screen reader technology. The NFB withdrew the suit after AOL agreed to make changes. In October 2006, the NFB sued Target, citing several issues including the fact that the site requires the use of a mouse to make purchases.

On December 3, 2006, the UN observed an “International Day of Disabled Persons,” and described the importance of accessible technology, noting that:

Persons with disabilities are at a considerable disadvantage by not being able to access information technologies. For instance, as education becomes increasingly dependent on information technologies, not being able to access the Internet for example limits the learning potential of persons with disabilities.

Whether or not the United Nations effort actually has any benefit remains to be seen. But at least it may help focus attention on the problem – and enlighten recalcitrant designers about just how easy it is to meet basic accessibility requirements.

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