Sunday, July 15, 2012

Are Australia's web developers failing to deliver accessible websites?

In a recent story in ITNews, Accessibility checker surfaces errors, John Hibbert claimed that a new Mental Health website,, operated by the National Health Call Centre Network and funded by the Department of Health and Ageing, didn't meet the Australian Government's minimum web standards.

Based on a review using the ACheck tool for the minimum WCAG 2.0 'A' level of compliance, John reported that the checker:
highlighted two known problems, 245 "potential problems", 20 HTML validation errors and 115 cascading style sheet problems on the site.
I tend to always take the results of these tools with a grain of salt. Many of the reported validation errors and style sheet issues are often repeats of one single issue, or are not really issues at all, and the two known problems would take a couple of minutes to fix and do not pose direct accessibility risks at all.

However this article does highlight a concern I've had for several years - whether Web Developers, contracted to produce these sites for government, always have the appropriate skills and knowledge to develop accessible websites.

I've seen this type of issue repeated a number of times. A policy or program area, possibly with support from a central communication or IT area, goes out to tender for a website. Web Developers respond, get assessed and the successful tenderer goes about creating the site.

A few months later the site is complete with days to spare before the Ministerial launch - but fails accessibility testing by the agency.

"We didn't understand how important accessibility was to you" says the Web Developer. Note that I was in the room when these exact words were said to an agency by a reputable web developer regarding a website which was developed iteratively and we'd been giving them feedback about accessibility for a number of weeks.

So what happens next?

If accessibility was not explicit mentioned in the contract, the Web Developer asks for more cash to meet the requirement, even though it is a baseline requirement for all government websites across Australia, and says it won't be ready for launch.

If an accessibility level was explicitly agreed to in the contract, the Web Developer grudgingly assigns a junior developer to 'sort it out' - with a vague promise that it will be done in a few weeks or months.

The agency is left having to launch a website which doesn't meet the minimum and fix it as soon as possible afterwards - all because the Web Developer didn't recognise and act on the legal requirement for accessibility.

Of course there's many examples where Web Developers have done exceptional accessibility work for agencies, however I have seen and heard too many issues where professional Web Developers didn't understand the accessibility requirements of governments.

Delivering an inaccessible website to a government agency will cause that agency to break the law and expose it to enormous risks of legal damages. No vendor should ever put their client in this type of position knowingly, particularly where it is so easily avoidable.

My view is that any Web Developer that doesn't deliver a government website to at least the minimum accessible standards (unless otherwise explicitly agreed to by the agency in question) should not receive any payment until they have addressed all accessibility issues.

They should also lose their right to bid for other government business until they can prove they have fully trained their staff on accessible web design.

These may be harsh and strong measures, and I doubt they will be considered due to contractual and practical issues.

However if a vendor contracted to sell a government agency a car that turned out to not be street legal or rent them a building that turned out to not meet the building code, government would walk away without paying and ask for damages, plus be very cautious about working with that vendor again.

Why should it be any different with illegal websites?


  1. Craig - in this case, I think this might be a little harsh. It looks like this particular site runs on Drupal and was developed by PreviousNext .

    These are experienced developers working in the government sector and the site has only been launched in the last few weeks. Apparently the accessibility issues have subsequently been fixed. The sorts of penalties you describe will only increase the cost of development. TBH I'm not really sure why ITNews are focusing on government sites, when relatively speaking its really the commercial sector that is actually lagging in accessibility.

    Maybe a simpler test for government agencies seeking service providers is to check the accessibility of the vendor's own site? If it fails, don't hire them.

    1. Thanks for the comments.

      FWIW I passed my results to Health for their comments and they have since fixed the site as required by the terms of their contract to comply with WCAG 2.0 A.

      @JamesDellow thanks for the additional background.

      I focus on Australian Government sites because it is policy for its sites to be compliant with WCAG 2.0 A by December 2012 see

      The mental health portal was worth testing as it was supposed to be compliant from the time of its launch.

      There are few sanctions other than to report which sites met their responsibilities and which are struggling.

      Government sites tend to be pricier to build than non-Government sites. The least you can expect is that they will be compliant with the prescribed standards.

      There are no set standards for access via smartphones yet.,agimo-eyes-mobile-friendly-website-strategy.aspx

    2. @John Hilvert

      Thanks, I'm aware of the federal policy. The trouble is, you need to look at accessibility in context. The mental health portal is just that - primarily a directory to other content. Have you checked if *all* that content is accessible?

      To your point that "Government sites tend to be pricier to build than non-Government sites. The least you can expect is that they will be compliant with the prescribed standards." - there are plenty of reasons for this and bears no relationship to quality or outcome!

      BTW there was some discussion about mobile and your earlier review on my blog here

  2. Agencies with homepages that fail WCAG automated tests:
    Professional Services Review
    Central Land Council
    Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority
    Australian National Maritime Museum
    Torres Strait Regional Authority
    Australian Securities and Investments Commission
    Australian River Co. Limited
    National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority
    Private Health Insurance Ombudsman
    Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority
    Corporations and Markets Advisory Committee
    Sydney Harbour Federation Trust
    Australian National University
    Outback Stores Pty Ltd
    Future Fund Management Agency
    Coal Mining Industry (Long Service Leave Funding) Corporation
    Department of Human Services
    Australian Sports Commission
    Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation
    Royal Australian Mint
    Australian Postal Corporation
    Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education
    Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency
    Army and Air Force Canteen Service
    Office of National Assessments
    Family Court of Australia
    Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs
    Indigenous Land Corporation
    Australian Film Commission
    Biosecurity Australia
    Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation
    Indigenous Business Australia
    Private Health Insurance Administration Council
    Australian Military Forces Relief Trust Fund
    The National Institute of Clinical Studies Ltd
    Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General
    Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security
    Northern Land Council
    Australia Business Arts Foundation Ltd
    Productivity Commission
    Office of the Renewable Energy Regulator
    Aboriginal Hostels Limited
    Low Carbon Australia Limited
    Australian Reinsurance Pool Corporation
    Australian Industry Development
    Tiwi Land Council
    Office of Parliamentary Counsel
    Murray-Darling Basin Authority
    Land and Water Australia
    Safe Work Australia
    RAAF Welfare Recreational Company
    Office of the Australian Accounting Standards Board
    Australian Solar Institute Limited
    Tourism Australia
    Australian Strategic Policy Institute Limited
    Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport

    Agencies with homepages that pass WCAG automated tests:
    Department of Defence
    National Competition Council
    Federal Court of Australia
    Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation
    Sugar Research and Development Corporation
    Anindilyakwa Land Council
    ASC Pty Ltd
    High Court of Australia
    Australian Antarctic Division
    Special Broadcasting Service Corporation
    Fair Work Australia
    Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC)
    Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency Ltd
    Dairy Adjustment Authority
    General Practice Education and Training Limited
    Medibank Private Limited
    Commonwealth Grants Commission
    Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
    National Library of Australia
    Old Parliament House
    Australian Skills Quality Authority
    Australian National Preventive Health Agency
    Australian Rail Track Corporation Limited
    Bundanon Trust
    Office of the Australian Information Commissioner
    Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations
    Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care
    Grains Research and Development Corporation
    Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council

    Of course automated tests are not the be all and end all of accessibility. Some of these cases are "put a pretty picture in for aesthetics and didn't bother to blank the alt text" (potential problems are ignored) - if a third of agencies listed could do it 100% of the time, are the other two thirds not even using automated tests once in a while?

  3. I've had similar experiences when I worked in government after clauses in a Request for Quote stating the minimum accessibility that a web development project had to deliver were ignored by developers. Part of the problem is that a developer can provide a product which they think is 'okay' for accessibility but if the people who procured it can't judge if it complies with accessibility standards, they'll sign off on it and the site/application gets launched.

    Then the developer can easily say ask for more money to fix the accessibility problems later because what they provided was accepted and paid for.

    I'd like to know if the subsequent work done on the Mental Health Connect was done under the initial contract or did they have to pay extra?

  4. After 15 years working in Canberra, I don't find this issue an unusual one.

    Government web projects tend to be run by program areas without adequate knowledge of the requirements or policies, like WCAG 2.0 requirements. This means they don't know how to specify their requirements adequately to vendors or to internal development teams.

    Most don't engage their corporate comms areas during the process and involve them to assure accessibility is integral to the solution.

    Most developers don't know how to 'make' the front-end accessible.

    Most accessibility and usability testing happens in UAT where it is felt it is too costly to make the changes needed to adequately comply.

    Most staff who manage content on a day-to-day basis don't typically don't know how to make their content accessible -- they just want to push the button and get on with their other work.

    I've just completed a set of automated and manual inspection tests across 100 government agency websites as part of a White Paper. Most of the problems are faily superficial but show a clear lack of understanding of what accessibility is and how to make published content accessible.

    It's a systemic problem and it won't go away quickly.


  5. Note also that the site only meets WCAG A, not AA.

    I know that they are quoted as saying "it was on track to meet the higher AA standard by December 2012".

    Accessibility and usability are not add-ons. They should IMHO be an integral part of the site from its conception.


    1. Actually, if you are building with a WCMS or similar (e.g. WP) then it actually needs to start with the underlying platform.