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Education sites weak on inclusion

Some leading government and commercial educational websites need to improve their design to give greater access to people with disabilities. Barking and Dagenham's corporate web manager David Evans (left) says, "Web content is often seen as an after-thought, so it doesn't receive the same care and attention as printed content when it comes to good design."

It's estimated that around one in four people in the UK are disabled or have a close friend or relative with disabilities. For example, two million people are blind or partially sighted and some 1.8 million individuals experience colour blindness. Last March, technology agency Becta published a website accessibility guide, which states how the World Wide Web Consortium's (WC3) Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines are a solid foundation for good web design. It also says that under the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act and 2001 Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, educational institutions are obliged to ensure students with disabilities are not at a disadvantage when accessing educational resources, including online content and services.

Free automated online tools, based on the WC3's guidelines, can be used for testing accessibility. The Times Educational Supplement used Watchfire WebXact tester to check a number of high-profile educational websites.

WebXact scans a website and then displays the results ranked against the WC3's rating system in the form of warnings. Becta's own website produced 34 warnings, the Department for Education and Skill's 38, Curriculum Online's 36, BBC Bitesize's 43 and Espresso.com's 36. To be fair, some of the warnings covered relatively minor points. However, the tests found many examples of web pages with poor colour contrast, images with no supporting text information, distracting animations and the need to move a computer mouse in order to navigate a page.

"It is a challenge to conform to guidelines and different tests produce different results," says David Evans. "People tend to focus on the errors and not the achievements and it's very difficult to reach 100 per cent accessibility. But that said, everyone should be looking to improve their websites when it comes to making them more accessible."

For further debate on website accessibility, see Edict, page 8

Becta's guidelines: www.becta.org.ukindustryadviceindex.cfm

Watchfire WebXact's test page: http:webxact.watchfire.com

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