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Web Accessibility for Government Sites

Date Posted: Tuesday, 24 February 2015 10:35
Posted By: Kerry Butters

In November 2009, the council of Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments adopted the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 with a view to increase the accessibility of all government (federal, state and territory) sites. This led to the introduction of the National Transition Strategy (NTS) the following year which was created to ensure that sites became compliant with Level AA by the end of 2014.

The NTS requires that all online government information, be it fully owned by the government or not, be WCAG 2.0 compliant. This applies to websites, intranet and extranet sites and any domain which is owned or operated by a government body.

This also applies to:

  • Sites fully or partly owned by any government agency
  • Those registered on a domain name, sub-domain or directory
  • Sites that have a distinct look, audience and purpose
  • Sites which are government funded in order to disseminate government information

In the event that a site has more than one agency involved in its operation which have different compliance requirements (A or AA), then the higher level of compliance is the one which must be adhered to.

Why Does a Site Have to Meet Compliance Regulations?

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 states that it’s the responsibility of agencies to ensure that people who suffer a disability have the same right to access information as able-bodied members of the community. Further to this, the internet is a human right under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and as such, disabled people must be given the same opportunity to access information, communications and services as others.

With this in mind, all content that’s made available by governments to workers and the community in general must be compliant. This applies to content created before July 2010 if it’s still available and still current. Agencies are required to conduct their own assessments of their websites, but guidance can be obtained from the Australian Government Information Management Office.

Compliance

Common Challenges When Implementing Accessibility

According to the Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy, “Retrofitting accessibility features to a website or web content can be expensive and time-consuming, and such sites are also generally more expensive to manage than those created to conform to WCAG 2.0 from launch.”

Bearing in mind how quickly technology has changed and improved over just the last few years, it’s recommended by the NTS that web projects are started from scratch with accessibility firmly in mind. This enables a much higher level of usability as more modern technologies are implemented and to some extent, also future-proofs the sites. It’s much easier to do this than to attempt to upgrade existing systems and bolt-on further services or information. This is also true of legacy content that may have to remain; content that is more than a few years old is often likely to have been created with technology that’s now obsolete, so it can be difficult to convert this information into that which is suitable for the new and improved web standards.

This means that government sites should first identify all current and relevant information with a view to decommissioning or archiving content that’s no longer necessary. Agencies are encouraged to archive online in order to improve government transparency.

An archived website is:

  • Maintained only for the purposes of reference, research and record-keeping
  • Not altered once it’s been archived
  • Stored in a digital repository
  • Clearly identified as being an archive

Government agencies remain liable for archived sites and these must still be compliant even if they have been decommissioned.

Further WCAG 2.0 Guidelines

It’s also recommended that those government agencies that are developing sites with advanced web technologies and custom widgets follow other WC3 guidelines in order to be even more accessible. Guidelines for this can be found under the proposed Web Accessibility Initiative Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA).

CMSs and Accessibility

Since government sites have to adhere to regulations when it comes to accessibility, the use of a CMS is pivotal in ensuring that content organisation-wide is properly managed.

According to WC3:

“Content management will continue to be relevant because it represents a reasonable approach to the development and archiving of Web content in diverse organizations. It is important, then, that these systems take into account the needs of users with disabilities, not only in using CMS products, but in guaranteeing that they can use all of the content that is stored within. Since changing a few templates can on some CMS-client sites cause millions of documents to be altered, the accessibility of content management systems in aggregate impacts the overall accessibility of the Web immensely.”

With this in mind, it’s important that when considering the website as a new project, as recommended by the NTS, a CMS partner is chosen which has a thorough understanding of web accessibility to level AA (minimum) and the technological tools and skills necessary to construct an accessible system and site.

Effectively planning a site with a robust CMS will save in time and money later on and the planning stages are likely to throw some issues up with regards to accessibility that can be resolved before the site goes live. Accessibility is a legal requirement that all sites have to comply with and a moral requirement in that everyone should have access to the same information no matter what the state of their health. For government sites the process is much stricter than with commercial sites and as such, it pays to plan well in advance and to follow the guidelines set out by both the WC3 and the Australian Government. 

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