Monday, January 21, 2013
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Using government websites is an ordeal for many disabled persons as the accessibility guidelines issued three years ago are yet to be fully implemented

Even after three years of the Prime Minister's order, some of the top government websites remain inaccessible to persons with disabilities. What is even more ironic is that some of them make tall claims about being 'accessible' but when tested, failed miserably. Most people use the Internet to take up certain tasks including booking railway or air tickets, online shopping, filing of tax returns, applying for passports or booking a cinema ticket. But for many of the 70-100 million people with disabilities, this is an impossible task.

To address this problem, the National Informatics Centre (NIC) had issued strict guidelines in 2009. These guidelines had incorporated accessibility rules from the international accessibility standards: the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Persons with disabilities use various assistive technologies to browse the web. However, if the websites are not constructed as per the WCAG, the assistive technology fails to read them thus declining access to a person with disability. Implementing these guidelines ensures that the web content is Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust (POUR) for all users irrespective of the technology, device and situation of use.

However, some of the top government websites, including the National Portal of India (http://www.india.gov.in), Ministry of Tourism (http://www.tourism.gov.in), Ministry of Human Resource Development (http://www.mhrd.gov.in) and Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances (http://darpg.nic.in), fail to follow these rules. An audit of 10 government websites conducted by BarrierBreak Technologies on request of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) in November 2012 found that even though all of them had an accessibility statement on display, they were inaccessible to disabled in general and people with visual impairment, print impairment and hearing impairment, in particular.

Automated tests revealed that the pages failed to meet even the minimum accessibility compliance requirements of WCAG 2.0. In addition, the tested pages lacked valid HTML and CSS mark up. This is a gross discrimination against persons with disabilities and a shame to a country that boasts to be the Information Technology superpower. A combination of both automated and manual tests were performed by people with  different types of disabilities, such as visual impairments, mobility impairments etc. as well as accessibility testers keeping WCAG 2.0 Level AA in mind. The POUR principles forming the basis for WCAG guidelines were tested individually across all the websites.

Principle 1: Perceivable

The guidelines say that any non-text content is to be provided with text alternatives so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, Braille, speech, symbols or simpler language. On all the websites tested, several issues were found for text alternatives for images. In particular, issues such as missing alt attribute, inaccurate alternate text and empty alternate text were found across the websites tested. Information was not structured appropriately using html headings, lists, table headers, form labels etc. across all the websites. Inappropriate reading order was found on some of the websites.

As a result, screen reader users got confused while accessing web page content. Instances of incorrect reading order were found on National Informatics Centre Services Inc. (NICSI) website, National Portal of India and Uttarakhand state government portal. Foreground and background colour combinations with an insufficient contrast ratio were also found on all the tested websites.

All web browsers provided users with options to resize text to enable them to view the page content at a larger or smaller text size. However, they all failed to resize text using Internet Explorer browser’s text resizing feature, This makes it difficult for low vision users and senior citizens to access web page content. All the websites tested use images to display textual information. This makes it difficult for low vision users to access the information with their assistive technologies, such as screen magnifiers since images of text get blurred when zoomed in.

Principle 2: Operable

This rule talks about making all functionality available from a keyboard except where the underlying function requires input that depends on the path of the user's movement and not just the endpoints. However, keyboard support was found missing on National Portal of India, Uttarakhand state government portal, NICSI, Ministry of Tourism, Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances and Department of Justice websites.

Keyboard support was also found missing for functionalities, such as Flash content, drop-down navigation menus, slideshow controls, scripted links and even in-page bookmark links. Out of all the websites tested, seven included moving content that was presented using slideshows but none of the websites provided users with options to control this content. The Department of Justice website included controls to “Start and Stop” the movement of content but the same were not working in Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome web browsers.

All the tested websites except the one for the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions had skip link/ bypass link which allows keyboard users bypass the repetitive navigational links provided at the top of the page and jump to the core content of the page. However, excluding NICSI and Ministry of Human Resource Development websites, the skip links failed to work effectively. Descriptive web page titles were found on only four of the 10 websites tested.

Some of the errors with regards to web page titles found on the website included empty, incomplete and identical page titles. All the websites except Department of Electronics and Information Technology included identical and non-descriptive link text (a text or a phrase that is associated with the link which does not give an indication to where the link will take the user).

On all the websites tested, headings and label text were found to be descriptive except for Department of Electronics and Information Technology website. On one of the pages tested of Department of Electronics and Information Technology website, the captcha question text "12 + 4 =" is not included within the label of the input field. This makes it difficult for users especially those with visual disabilities to understand what information needs to be entered in the associated form field.

Principle 3: Understandable

Language of web pages was specified accurately only on few of the websites tested. On others, the language was either not specified or specified inaccurately. On some websites, links to Hindi version and links to regional language files were provided. However, change of language for these links was not identified through HTML code. As a result, assistive technologies, such as screen readers and Braille displays, failed to interpret the information accurately for their users. The functionality of some interactive components of certain websites was not found to be predictable.

On one of the pages tested of the Ministry of Human Resource Development website when users select an option from the available drop-down list, page reload automatically and content gets updated below the drop down list. Users were not informed about this change in functionality in advance. On another page, selecting a radio button from a group caused the page content to update automatically. Auto-refreshing drop-down lists were found on NICSI, National Portal of India and Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances websites. As a  result, users with visual and mobility disabilities found it difficult to navigate through  the options of the drop-down list.

Error messages were not provided on submitting the form with errors on the Ministry of Human Resource Development website. Similarly, no error message was provided for the captcha input field when the form was submitted with error in the captcha input field on the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances website. Generic and non descriptive error messages were provided when an empty form was submitted on the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances website. Placement of error messages was found to be incorrect on submitting a form with errors on the Ministry of Tourism and Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances websites.

Labels and instructions on forms were found missing on six of the 10 websites tested. Instructions regarding mandatory form fields were missing on the NICSI and Ministry of Tourism websites. On one of the forms found on NICSI website, instructions for filling up the form were provided towards the end which resulted in users not noticing the same. Label for different form fields were found to be missing on NICSI, Department of Justice, National Portal of India, Ministry of Tourism, Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances, Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions websites. As a result, users with learning and visual impairments were not sure of what information they were required to input in those form fields.

Principle 4: Robust

Markup (code used to display information on web pages) used on all the websites, except for National Portal of India website, was invalid as per the W3C’s specifications. Elements were not nested properly on the Uttarakhand state government portal. Start and end tags were missing for elements on all the websites tested, except for National Portal of India and Uttarakhand state government portal. Duplicate values were provided for some of the id attributes within a page on the Ministry of Human Resource Development and Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances website.

Dynamic functionalities, such as lightboxes, expand/collapse functionality; slideshow controls, tab links, iframes, sort functionality, scripted links, etc were used across all the websites tested. However, all of the websites had accessibility issues related to dynamic functionality. Title for iframes was missing on NICSI, Ministry of Tourism, Department of Administrative Reforms & Public Grievances and Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions websites. Light boxes used on NICSI, Department of Justice, Uttarakhand state government portal, Ministry of Tourism and Karnataka State Human Rights Commission websites were found to be inaccessible for screen reader users and keyboard-only users.

The light boxes got added either at the top, towards the end or at times in the middle of the page code resulting in screen reader users and keyboard only users finding it difficult to access the same. Expand/collapse functionality for links provided on National Portal of India, Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Human Resource Development websites was unclear for the screen reader users as no indication regarding the functionality was made available in advance.

Tab functionality associated with links on Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Human Resource Development websites was unclear for the screen reader users as no indication regarding the functionality was provided in advance. Moreover, the user’s focus remained on the selected link which added up to the confusion. Slideshow content provided on NICSI, Uttarakhand state government portal and Ministry of Human Resource Development websites was unclear for the screen reader users as no indication regarding the presence of a slideshow was provided in advance.

Scrolling and moving content was provided on Department of Justice, Uttarakhand state government portal, Karnataka State Human Rights Commission, Ministry of Human Resource Development and Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances websites and option to “Start/Stop” the movement was also provided; however, no indication regarding the functionality of the links was provided in advance to orient screen reader users.

On selecting some links on the NICSI website, the page reloaded and a drop-down list got updated on the page. This functionality was found to be unclear by screen reader users. On selecting a link on the National Portal of India website, content got dynamically added below. This functionality was unclear for screen reader users as no indication regarding the functionality of the link was provided in advance.

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