Elements or Lower

Sun, 05 Mar 2006

Better Connected 2006

Press coverage on this year’s SOCITM “Better Connected” report observes that only three local authority sites achieve WCAG “level AA” conformance, despite the ODPM priority outcome for all sites to do so by 1 April. Woking isn’t one of the four.

This news got under my skin just a little, not because I think it’s unjustified, but because it reminds me vaguely of my old French teacher:

I have a word for nearly right, and it’s this: “wrong”.

The subtext I found myself reading into this was that accessibility is an all-or-nothing thing; that unless you can meet all checkpoints on all pages, your site is inaccessible.

In truth, every checkpoint you can meet is acting to decrease potential problems and frustration for at least some users. There are some things you can do to completely nix accessibility for certain groups (for example, requiring Javascript for any links to work), but few checkpoints are designed to specifically address these kinds of egregious issues.

Of course, the report itself probably acknowledges this, and it’s unlikely that more than a representative sample of pages from any site were assessed. But the difficulty we have, as an organisation who have tried to follow the WAI checkpoints closely, is knowing exactly what let us down in the eyes of the report.

The current guidelines aren’t always 100% unambiguous, and there are certain issues addressed by them that are the subject of some debate.

Although the Council have yet to receive the full report, I understand that the methodology for assessment against level A are listed in the appendix. This is great news, but (unless I’ve misread the situtation), the methodology for assessment against level AA isn’t included, and that’s precisely what would help us most.

My sentiments here are largely an echo of those expressed by Dan Champion, web manager for Clackmannshire Council. Dan notes that the lack of transparency in the assessment process used by companies such as SiteMorse devalues the results they provide.

Our page metadata doesn’t claim greater than level A comformance, since it’s probably better to undersell than oversell here, but accessibility is an ongoing priority both for the Council as publishers and me as programmer, and we’re confident that by-and-large, we really should be meeting pretty much everything from level AA and a fair number of checkpoints from level AAA as well.

Having said that, we certainly have work to do in improving the accessibility of our PDF provision, we need an accessibility statement, we need to consider provision for accesskeys, and I have a personal project to implement a zoom layout style-switcher in the next few months.

I also suspect that a key issue that let us down is the way that we’ve used popups for things like explaining PDF and RSS usage. My implementation here works by having a link to the content as the href and a call to a Javascript function that opens a popup onclick. The normal link, however, includes a reference to the current page, so that the CMS wraps the popup content as if the page were a descendent of the current page in the sitemap (that is, the breadcrumb trail contains appropriate navigation back). The onclick link lacks this reference, which prompts the CMS to disregard the normal page templates and use a “popup” template instead.

The issue here is that none of this addresses the requirement to inform the user when a link opens a new window. The content only opens a popup if you have Javascript enabled, and acts as a normal link using the same window otherwise, but that’s not quite what the checkpoint addresses.

I plan, therefore, to implement a variation on Gez Lemon’s script, which uses the DOM to add new window behaviour — and, crucially, notification — to links marked as being external.

It won’t help our score in Better Connected, of course, but it will help our ongoing accessibility efforts.