The U.S. Needs Exemplary Accessibility

Posted December 19th, 2006 by Mike Cherim

It's Evident Why should US businesses make their sites accessible? Especially considering it’s not toothy law and where the law does apply, there is little to no compliance to serve as a worthy example. For instance, since 1998, sites affiliated with and for the US government are supposed to comply with Section 508 guidelines. But many, if not most, don’t. I suspected this was simply due to aged designs that would be made accessible when refurbished. After yesterday morning, though, I realize the US isn’t even close. I don’t particularly want to criticize my own country’s government, but the failings in the area of web accessibility is undeniably pathetic. Get with the program Uncle Sam!

Once a week I log into the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS) to pay my corporation’s payroll taxes. For two years I have complained and asked them to add form labels to the checkboxes in their forms and to include those inputs in within the labels to make clicking on them easier. The first request, from me as a person with a need, was completely ignored (even though it took me an hour on the phone to find someone to ignore me). The second request made a year later, from me as an “advocate for the disabled,” was finally responded to with a promise to make it right but that “these things take time.” Six months passed — nothing. I had high hopes, though, as the site was going to be re-designed. Great, I thought, they’ll get it right. I was wrong!

In the spirit of Joe Clark’s Failed Redesigns I must point out a few facts about the long-awaited EFTPS re-launch which I finally got to see yesterday morning.

  • The site is built using tables for layout and deprecated elements; and this is with its HTML 4.01 Transitional Document Type (complete with an out-of-place XML language declaration and no identified character set).
  • The site offers no fieldsets and form labels (though there are labels on the checkboxes now). Instead it opts for stuff like these things I noted during my quick five-minute inspection:

    <td width="35%" class="labelContainer" title="Employer Identification Number">
    <span class="formLabel">EIN</span> (for Business)&nbsp;

    A span classed as a form label. That’s almost laughable. (The input is in another table cell.)

  • The site’s login page, as one example, passes the automated Section 508 guidelines, but doesn’t really pass the guidelines.
  • The site offers no site map that I could find (if it exists it’s not very usable if I can’t find it).
  • Without image support the site is a mess and not very usable.
  • The Accessibility Statement puts the responsibility of complaining about the site’s [lack of] accessibility on the user instead of embracing compliance in a proactive fashion.
  • Link focus isn’t offered on in-content links. That’s so easy to do that it’s almost unforgivable.
  • No use of lists or link separators. Basic stuff.

Now, I don’t want to fail to give credit where credit is due. The site is an improvement over the frames and tables build that occupied the domain previously. It does offer focal states on the top-level links, and the font sizing is relative, they do offer a glossary of acronyms and abbreviations, and other goodies I’m sure. But still, it’s failing many of the the basics. It looks as if the makers were more interested in passing automated validation than really addressing issues or meeting real needs. Instead they offer a statement about how well they did and that they’re open to feedback. Having done that — I tried to give feedback route — I know it’s not terribly effective. Even getting in touch I found myself bouncing around from department to department because nobody was responsible or knew who was.

The EFTPS isn’t the only government site failing to live up to what’s expected of it, and I don’t mean to pick on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in particular — trust me on this, I don’t like using them as an example — but I’m so disappointed. Many government sites are in the same shape and in need of a reboot which will hopefully be more successful. But it makes me wonder how US businesses, like Target, for example, are supposed to take web accessibility seriously when they aren’t obligated to do it, need to be sued to find the time or motivation, and the government they pay their taxes to doesn’t seem to care that much either. They talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. The US is falling well behind much of the world in this area.

Millions upon millions of dollars have been spent on meeting physical accessibility needs: wheelchair ramps, grab rails, restroom modifications, wider doorways. The relative spending involved in making web sites accessible is minimal by comparison — literally a fraction of the costs. But without leadership or legal action, it won’t happen. This leadership should come from the top. It shouldn’t be left to lowly bloggers like myself to raise a fuss and heighten awareness. But that’s what I’m trying to do as it’s just not happening otherwise.

17 Responses to: “The U.S. Needs Exemplary Accessibility”

  1. David Zemens responds:
    Posted: December 19th, 2006 at 12:39 pm

    You can’t fight city hall, Mike. Or at best, it certainly can be expected to be a long, long fight. Keep up the good work! You inspire me.

    PS You sure have been busy lately with lots of blog posts and quite a few new projects posted. It’s about time to take a break for the Holidays, isn’t it? :-)

  2. Adam H responds:
    Posted: December 19th, 2006 at 3:44 pm

    I haven’t been overly impressed by very many Canadian government sites. I think the problem lies in how government is managed. Entrenched public service lifers don’t care about the web and only hire people to create stuff because they are told to from above. They don’t care if they hire a high school student with basic Dreamweaver ability.

    I think in order for anything to change the mind set of those civil servants will need to be changed, or better yet, taken out of the equation by legislation and department restructuring. Putting up anything on a government website should require due process which includes review by an accessibility expert like Derek Featherstone here in Ottawa, Canada. (I’m not familiar with American accessibility experts)

  3. Jim Thatcher responds:
    Posted: December 19th, 2006 at 7:03 pm

    Thanks very much for that recommendation, Mike. I really appreciate it.

    Looking at US federal sites can be depressing. But I think the problems are not as black and white as you suggest. Disclaimer: I only looked at the login page and the home page.

    The code is pretty bad [for=”enroll as a business” with no id on the input element] and the accomodations are burdensome [alt=”contact Electronic Federal Tax Payment System” instead of alt=”contact us”]. The site could be added to my “how not to do accessibility” collection.

    But I disagree with some of the specifics you raise:
    1) The Section 508 Accessibility Standards have no requirement for valid code and no prohibition of tables for layout.
    2) The login form is labeled using the title attribute which I think is a reasonable decision - but poorly implemented, title=”Enter the first 2 digits of your employer identification number.”
    3) There is no 508 requirement for a site map nor link separators - I think the latter is not an issue today anyway.

    The pages I looked at do pass 508 requirements.

    For me what is depressing is that they tried and did such an amateur job because they didn’t know how to do it better. We don’t agree amongs ourselves, but even if we did, there aren’t enough people who know accessibility to train all the web developers and designers. That’s depressing. And accessibility isn’t part of mainstream education.

  4. Robert Wellock responds:
    Posted: December 20th, 2006 at 6:16 am

    Truly amazing; they decided to use ‘absolute font size’, x-small font as the default for the body.

  5. Gary responds:
    Posted: December 20th, 2006 at 8:19 pm

    When I worked for the Defense Information Systems Agency, I was the only person in my department whose web presence attempted to pass 508 guidelines. I was stymied even there, however, by the mandate from on high that we not use CSS for anything on the site, so my code was perforce filled with deprecated tags. Sure, it passed the validation, but it’s still poor design. And look again at the name of the agency I was working for; the Irony Police had to be called.

  6. Gary responds:
    Posted: December 20th, 2006 at 8:45 pm

    They were clueless, so far as I can tell. I never got a satisfactory or even coherent answer as to why CSS was bad. The senior web guys weren’t web guys at all, but network engineers. Somewhere, they’d determined that CSS was complicated and scary. And, someone claimed that they were going to create a site-wide CSS standard so using CSS for my little corner of the site was bad. After two years, no CSS was ever evident and 508-compliance was still completely lacking.

    Looking at the site today, I still see they haven’t figured out that web standards are a good thing. No doctype, no character encoding, all-caps tags, table-based layout, no alt tags, etc. Just frightening for the group supposedly in charge of IT for the Defense Department. They do, however, finally have a site-wide CSS specification. That’s something. Not the important thing, but something.

  7. Steve Tucker responds:
    Posted: December 20th, 2006 at 8:46 pm

    It is amazing just how little attention large bodies - governments included - give to important issues such as website accessibility. Alas America is not much different than Britain; I’ve seen so many ‘professional’ organisations supporting poorly built websites that I’ve lost count. And it’s not just accessibility that suffers. In many-a-case usability comes second too - though second to what (considering the state of some sites) I just don’t know!

    Things are going in the right direction though, with laws in Britain, and the global publication of web standards, etc. However todays mindframe to online accessibility still comes second by a considerable margin to those of the physical kind, as you’ve observed.

    Good article on an important topic :)

  8. Jen responds:
    Posted: December 21st, 2006 at 7:23 am

    I actually had a conversation at my old place of employment about accessibility and brought to management’s attention that our UK sites could lead to some legal issues for us. They didn’t seem too concerned about it. Thankfully our UK designer was concerned enough that when a redesign of the front page of the site was done, she at least included some accessibility in there.

    However, the response from our Web Producer—you know, the guy who is supposed to be leading the way on these kinds of issues was priceless. To sum up what he said about folks with disabilities accessing our sites:
    “Screw ‘em! They shouldn’t be surfing the net anyway.”

    I was bewildered and amazed at his lack of knowledge on this subject and his lack of compassion.

    Seems we have a long way to go.

  9. Robert Wellock responds:
    Posted: December 22nd, 2006 at 6:27 am

    …Screw ‘em! They shouldn’t be surfing the net anyway. …

    Well, that is just priceless ignorance; so I shouldn’t be surfing the internet then?

    I’d love to have a look at the sites he has produced, I’d be surprised if he should be even allowed to be let lose on them.

    No, I am not offended at all but it never ceases to amaze me how some people in the profession have such a lack of knowledge… Preferring to display ignorance thinking disability only means a person whom maybe; wheelchair bound, blind or of lower intelligence, or some other misconceived stereotype.

    I don’t think he even recognises approx. 10% of the population (1 in 10 people) has one or more disabilities, a small percentage actually use assistive devices for the web, and around 1% are registered blind.

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