The death of the NTS and the hope for Australia’s web accessibility future

In mid-2012 I wrote a W3C column article titled The National Transition Strategy – is it on track?  In it I raised concerns about the Federal Government’s ability to achieve its goals, but stated that ultimately, the NTS was a positive force: “I'm optimistic that if the concerns of people working at the coalface of the NTS are addressed, an obvious and significant improvement to the accessibility of government information will occur by the end of the year.” While I still believe this to be the case, it’s clear that the national mood has changed as the practical reality of the 2012 progress report and the position of the recent Federal Government begin to sink in.

There are certainly some great examples of the NTS succeeding, with the Intellectual Property Australia website being a shining example of an excellent government success story. However, as we now reach the mid-2014 point and look for guidance as to how Australia will meet its obligation to achieve WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliance across all government websites by the end of this year, it’s clear that the momentum has been lost.

That’s not to say that people at the coalface aren’t doing great work:  in fact, the numbers of people doing the Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility Compliance that I co-teach with Associate Professor Denise Wood of the University of South Australia continue to grow, with much of this growth coming from people in government. Indeed, the enthusiasm and desire from ICT professionals to work on accessibility issues, it could be argued, has never been stronger, so why the pessimism and downbeat column title? Because the needs of these dedicated people in government are trying their hardest to make it work when there’s very little in the way of resourcing and support.

The day the music died for the NTS

At the OZeWAI conference towards the end of 2013, the highlights of a report into the progress of the NTS was released with the formal report published just before Christmas that year. The pitch revolved around the issue of ‘binary madness’ and that it was time to move away from a ‘yes or no’ compliance model, instead concentrating on dong the best we can to move towards WCAG 2.0.  While many accessibility professionals would agree that the process in moving to an accessible website may take time, what was missing is the need to keep your ‘eyes on the prize’ and still ultimately strive to achieve the goal which in 2012 was WCAG 2.0 Level A compliance.

The report wasn’t without its positives, including improvements in accessible CMS implementation and improvements around public procurement. But the hard reality was that only 26% of government websites could be confirmed as meeting any level of WCAG 2.0 and the hardest statistic for me to swallow personally was that only 39% of new websites could be confirmed as meeting any level of compliance level since the progression of the NTS. While few were surprised, and since the number of accessible government websites before the NTS was tiny, the fact that three out of four websites weren’t accessible, and a majority of new websites hadn’t factored in accessibility, was a bit depressing.

However, what followed was the part that really took the wind out of the accessibility sails and left ICT professionals, government workers and accessibility specialists alike fuming. It was the statement, in the same progress report, that:

“It is clear that some websites and some web applications will not meet the ambitious 2014 timeframe for WCAG 2.0 level AA conformance.”

And it was that moment that the NTS died.

Since this statement was published, a full year before the completion of the NTS, I’ve spoken to people across many different industries working in many difference aspects of accessibility. There seems to be almost uniform agreement that it wasn’t so much the result of the first NTS deadline that made people feel that Australia hadn’t pulled its weight, but the fact that it had just given up.

While some may consider the statement from the progress report a simple example of brutal honesty, the true reality is that there’s nothing around it that suggests there’s still hope that as a nation we can do better in this space. Where is the encouragement that we should continue to strive for best practice and ultimately continue our focus on supporting the needs of people with disabilities in the most life-changing, independence-creating electronic information medium the world has ever seen?

The announcement of the NTS delivered hope that people with disabilities would have the opportunity to participate and access information equally. Therefore it follows that sadly, the resignation that there’s no longer any chance of success one year out from the deadline suggests that the official position of the Australian Government is that it no longer cares. I stress again that this isn’t a reflection on the individuals within the Government who work tirelessly to make a difference, but it is a reflection that its official position is that the NTS is no longer a priority.

The next blow came more recently with the Federal budget being handed down recently which is cutting costs heavily across a range of sectors. Regardless of your political views, one thing we can all agree on is that at this point in time is that web accessibility is not a high priority. With massive cuts to jobs in the public sector, web accessibility is just a distraction. As one public sector worker explained to me recently, it’s difficult to focus on your work when you have to keep at least one eye on job listings on employment websites.

How we can fix it — a call to arms

While the NTS may no longer be a priority six months out from its completion, what is clear is that people working within government agencies want to continue making the web better and it is these people that have clearly identified the problems and their solutions. Given that the web won’t stop at the end of 2014, now is the time to consider a post-NTS environment and look to what can be done to restore the hope that the web in Australia will get better, and that the fantastic skills of dedicated ICT professionals can be harnessed to make it happen.

In April I presented a paper at W4A 2014 co-authored with Denise Wood titled ‘the new accessibility panic’. The paper focused on discussions publicly available posts as well as discussions with students undertaking the PCWAC course in relation to the upcoming NTS deadline, which between 2011-2013, was still seen as being achievable. While the identities of all people were protected, there were four distinct themes relating to issues that emerged as target areas which, if solved, would significantly contribute to improvements in the accessibility of government websites.

PDF Accessibility

The first big issue is PDF accessibility, especially, and confusion over which software tool is best for making accessible PDFs, and how such a tool can be purchased for the Australian Government. Other related issues such as whether an alternative is needed if the PDF is accessible, whether the PDF needs to be accessible if the alternative is accessible, and how to deal with old scanned PDFs that need to be kept around were also seen as key challenges.

Captioning

The second key issue was captioning, and in particular, the need to get a good captioning editor.  Other related issues were around the reliability of YouTube captions and whether to use them, the perils of trying to do live captioning and whether videos ahead to be captioned if they were embedded, but not hosted, on government websites.

Auditing

The third issue was the need for good auditing software, preferably something at an enterprise level that it could be rolled out in the standard operating environment. Key challenges included how to use such tools, how to interpret the results, and who the results should be presented to.

Quick wins

The final key issue was the need for ‘quick wins’ and how time can be maximised to achieve as much of WCAG 2.0 in as short a timeframe as possible. 

Give government ICT professionals the tools and training they need

In essence, all four of these issues boil down to two requirements to support government in making accessibility happen: the need for good software such as PDF creation tools, captioning editors and auditing software to be provided, and some niche training in these areas to ensure that people know how to effectively use the tools in the implementation of accessibility in their work practices. While the NTS may be dead, there is hope that in a post-NTS initiative staff within government can be properly supported in their needs by ensuring they have effective tools to get the job done, and the training to match. With a new phase of accessibility starting in 2015, there’s a golden opportunity to start shaping what that could look like now. It’s my view that if we address the issues raised by government staff and give them the things they need to get the job done, web accessibility will improve and the ultimate aim of supporting people with disabilities can get back on track.

So to all the government decision-makers out there — it’s over to you.