UN Draws Attention to Web Access for Persons with Disabilities

Web site survey results released in conjunction with International Day of Disabled Persons

by / December 5, 2006
In recognition of International Day of Disabled Persons, the United Nations held a conference on E-Accessibility December 4th. The event sought to promote understanding of, and generate support for, the issue of disabled persons using technology and the Internet.

The UN states: "The United Nations aims to raise appreciation among governments, private entities and the public of the significant benefits to persons with disabilities and society when they are empowered with increased access to information technologies."

Recently, Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan also highlighted the importance of accessibility, stating that "access to information and communication technologies creates opportunities for all people, perhaps none more so than persons with disabilities." He also said that with the development of Internet and technologies "the barriers of prejudice, infrastructure and inaccessible formats need no longer stand in the way of participation."

At the conference, the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs released the findings of a survey to determine how accessible the Internet is for persons with disabilities. Conducted by the UK based accessibility firm Nomensa, the audit investigated the accessibility of 100 leading Web sites from 20 countries from around the world.

The aim of the survey, which was not intended to be exhaustive, was to obtain an indication concerning the existing status of accessibility of Web sites that people with disabilities might access as part of their daily lives.

Focusing on Articles 21(c) and 9(g) of the Draft Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, five sectors were chosen. Each sector was intended to reflect a key area of interaction for people online:
  • Travel (airlines)
  • Finance (banking)
  • Media (newspapers)
  • Politics (central government representative)
  • Retail (shops)
A Web site was chosen to represent each sector in the 20 countries, forming a matrix of 100 Web sites to be included in the audit. The homepage of each Web site was measured against the globally recognized benchmark for Web accessibility: The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 1.0 (WCAG 1.0).

"Fully accessible Web sites are not only good for persons with disabilities, they are good for everyone," Thomas Schindlmayr, policy specialist for the Department of Economic and Social Affairs said. "Persons with disabilities shop, they travel and they need information just like everyone else. Allowing people to exercise their human rights and play their full part in the economic, social and political lives of their societies just makes good sense all around."

Key Findings

Of the 100 homepages evaluated during the audit, only three achieved Single-A accessibility -- the basic accessibility rating for people who are blind, have low-vision disabilities, or cannot use a computer mouse: German Chancellor's site, Spanish Government's site and the British Prime Minister's site.

The performance across different sectors was varied, with central government, retail and banking offering the strongest (or joint strongest) accessibility performance across all countries.

Key shortfalls identified in the report were:
  • 93% did not provide adequate text descriptions for graphical content, causing problems for visually impaired people
  • 73% relied on JavaScript for important functionality, making it impossible for an estimated 10% of Internet users using the Internet to access key information
  • 78% used foreground and background color combinations with poor contrast, making it difficult for people with mild visual conditions, such as color blindness, to read information
  • 98% did not follow industry Web standards for the programming code, providing poor foundations for Web accessibility
  • 97% used fixed units of measurement, preventing people
    • from altering the size of text or comfortably resizing the page so that content can be easily scaled
    • 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
    • 87% caused pop-up windows to appear without warning the user, causing disorientation problems for people using screen magnification software
    Levels of Web accessibility across the 20 countries were lower than anticipated, given the presence of disability legislation in some countries and the fact that the WCAG have been in existence for over half a decade. Apart from the three sites that achieved Single-A accessibility, there is a global failure to provide the most basic level of Web accessibility for people with disabilities.

    "This survey shows that we're not close to reaching the Internet's full potential for use by persons with disabilities," said Schindlmayr. "Webmasters around the world -- including at the United Nations itself -- should be aware that they are losing a significant portion of their intended audience by not being fully accessible to all people."

    The 20 countries audited in the Nomensa-led United Nations survey were: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and United States of America.

    Gina M. Scott Writer