Saturday, September 13, 2008

Australian Human Rights Commission prepared to name and shame government publishers failing online accessibility

On Friday the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, at the Australian Human Rights Commission released a media statement, Climate change secretariat excludes people with disabilities, indicating the Commmision was prepared to 'out' government publishers who did not meet Australia's mandatory accessibility requirements for online material.
“I recently said that, if things did not start to improve, the Australian Human Rights Commission would have to start naming government publishers that are not taking the effort to make their documents sufficiently accessible for people with disability,” said Commissioner Innes.

In recent weeks there have been several accessibility-related media stories in Australia which have helped emphasise the importance of accessibility, not simply as a tickbox for web design, but as a baseline requirement for government material - published online or in other forms.

In this particular case the Human Rights Commission was targeting a specific document released originally only in PDF format. All that was being requested was that it be also published in another format as well (such as HTML) to improve accessibility.

"The Garnaut Review Supplementary Draft Report, Targets and trajectories, was released a week ago, but many people with disabilities still can't access it because it is still only available in pdf format", said Commissioner Innes. "These sort of documents should be published in RTF or HTML as well as pdf so that they can be read by all Australians."

For the record, I had a quick look at the Garnet Climate Change Review website and most of their documents are available in HTML as well as PDF.

It is possible to make modern PDF documents accessible, using the accessibility features in Adobe Acrobat Professional 7 or later. This requires an understanding of the tool and some time for larger documents - a straight PDF conversion of such documents from another format (such as Microsoft Word) generally doesn't meet Australia's legislated accessibility requirements.

Why is achieving accessibility so hard?

Given that PDFs can be made accessible, why does accessibility seem so elusive?

In my experience, across both private and public sector, I've found that generally that the webmasters, content publishers, designers and developers have a clear understanding of their obligations under Australia's mandatory accessibility requirements. They also generally understand and have access to the processes required to achieve it - although sometimes funding and timeframes are very tight.

Outside the web area it is often a different story. Generally most people across the rest of the organisation are less aware of the requirements. This can include document authors, communicators and senior executives.

There's no blame attached to this - accessibility isn't a large part of their jobs. These staff rely on the organisation's web specialists and graphic designers to tell them what they must do and assist them in meeting the requirements.

In fact this media release is a good tool to use in this education process.


  1. Is an accessible PDF deemed sufficient?

    It does require people have the latest versions of the reader, and perhaps the latest versions of assistive technology to work with these accessible documents. Upgrading assistive tech is expensive (so I hear).

    It has *always* seemed wise to provide HTML to me. Gives people choice while meeting accessibility. RTF as a suboptimal alternative to HTML.

  2. I agree - it is not that hard to produce an HTML equivalent to PDF. What is hard is finding the time to do it and to do it well.

    Government's might "be aware" of their obligations under the law, but I know of an instance where HTML documents are being taken off a site and replaced with PDF versions - can't see how helpful that will be.

  3. ugh... they're not up here in Queensland are they?

  4. HTML is always the preference in a web site for me. However often it seems faster and cheaper to add a PDF. Where this occurs the PDF should be accessible and a HTML version added as soon as possible.

    I hope someday people will place web ahead of paper, and design accordingly but we're not there yet.


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