Links: OZeWAI 2001 home page | presentations

Accessibility - the Response of the Government Sector

Kerry Webb , Web Architect, ACT Information Management


I have been involved in Government IT for many years, and in developing Government and personal websites since the mid 1990s. I have to say that most of those sites could only be described as partly accessible, because I don't have much of a background in Accessibility issues.

I have recently moved to the position of Web Architect with ACT Chief Minister's Department, with responsibility for online information policies and procedures, covering accessibility, usability, metadata and similar matters.

My presentation today will cover the state of play in Federal and state/territory jurisdictions, what's being done in the ACT and some of our recent experiences in the ACT.


Part of the Government Online Strategy (for which NOIE has the responsibility) requires agencies to observe the appropriate standards (the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 applies of course). There has been big focus on W3C/WAI with a program of sponsoring training and workshops - the last one was in July 2000.

For eighteen months NOIE has been surveying agencies and has been able to report progress, but they acknowledge that there is some way to go. The results of the latest survey (March 2001) are at

From the results:

The majority of agencies (61%) did not identify any impediments to meeting the accessibility guidelines. Agencies that did identify impediments most often mentioned resources (16%), with other barriers such as lack of IT skills, redesign of web site taking place, complexity/size of site each being mentioned by less than 5% of agencies.

The results of the Round 4 survey will be published soon.

The Commonwealth, States and Territories have agreed on a common approach to these issues. This is illustrated in the media release from the Seventh Online Council meeting (June 2000), linked from


The Council agreed to the adoption of the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as the common best practice standard for all Australian government websites. This decision should ensure that people with disabilities or technical constraints can use online resources provided by Australian governments. The Guidelines are widely recognised internationally, and have the support of Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, disability groups and rural groups.

Adoption of common standards by all Australian governments will promote the confidence of users in online services, and the accessibility of online government information and services. The guidelines set out ways to present information which will enhance access, for example, by providing website material on a text only basis to facilitate the use of screen readers by those with visual impairments, and reducing the use of graphics to enhance download times.

It's been reported that the current Chief Executive of NOIE has a particular interest in Accessibility, and NOIE staff have expressed interest in Julia Schofield's "Easy Access" concept.

The NOIE Contact is Brian Stewart - (02) 6271 1188

States and territories

In New South Wales , the Office of Information Technology provides guidance to NSW Government agencies in creating Websites. They have developed guidelines for site development, which are provided with all RFQs for website work. The guidelines are at

Regarding accessibility, P1 and P2 compliance is required as a minimum.

The NSW contact is Trevor Waters - (02) 9236 7702

In the Northern Territory , the Department of Corporate and Information Services has produced a comprehensive set of Website guidelines, part of which is a requirement for compliance with Priority 1 Accessibility checkpoints. To date, each Government Website went through an approval process to ensure that it complied with the Website guidelines. They use a text-based browser to verify text accessibility, and use Bobby to test accessibility and compatibility.

The NT contact is Alice Vicary - (08) 8924 3821

In Queensland , the first Government standard on Internet Information was introduced in 1995. The current standard and associated Best Practice Guide were reviewed and released to Government agencies in August 2001. The revised Information Standard 26 - Internet focuses on the use of the Internet as a driver not only of information and service provision, but also of encouraging broader participation in the information economy. This version ( ) provides guidance to agencies on the manner in which their websites should be developed to ensure the widest possible accessibility of this information and services to the relevant stakeholders.

Section 3 is about "Promoting Information and Service Availability on the Internet" and in 3.2 "Design considerations", the guidelines state:

Agencies should investigate new and existing technologies, but ensure that maximum accessibility is addressed through W3C Guidelines …

While these guidelines do not explicitly require P1 compliance, this is the clear intent.

The Queensland contact is Narelle Grudgfield - (07) 3404 3409

In South Australia , the Government Information & Communication Services Unit (within the Department for Administrative and Information Services) is responsible for Website Construction guidelines. The previous and current (draft) guidelines are at . On the subject of accessibility, they are not too prescriptive, but recommend conformance to WAI . Websites are required to conform with HREOC's WWW Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes at .

The SA contact is Martin Byrt (08) 8226 5733

In Tasmania , the Policy and Development and Management Unit, eServices Group, Dept of Premier and Cabinet is repsonsible for the Government Internet Publishing Standards (GIPS), which have been adopted for all agencies. See . These include standards for Accessibility. The main point of this is that Tasmanian Government Websites are expected to achieve P1 compliance. Some agencies are not yet fully complying, especially with respect to PDFs.

They are currently reviewing the guidelines and also reviewing the ways that they are implemented.

The Tasmania contact is Celia Taylor - (03) 6233 2838

In Victoria , there is a published policy on Victorian Government Websites having to achieve a minimum level of Accessibility compliance. See$FILE/It39.htm .

In theory, all new Websites must comply and also all existing sites as they are revised.

The Victoria contact is Cheryl Hardy - (03) 9651 9029

In Western Australia , the current responsibility is with the I&C Policy Directorate - previously the Office of Information and Communications. The Office sponsored a series of workshops and training, including assistance from the W3C's Charles McCathieNevile. They have published a series of newsletters, and are in the process of formalising a WA Govt policy which should be published early in 2002.

The WA contact is Ashleigh Brand - (08) 9327 5430

On implementation issues, the contact is Hima Krisnan on (08) 9327 5519. She has worked with the WA Disability Services Commission on the workshops. They have a working group involving the DSC, DIT, LISWA and the WA Municipal Association.

In the ACT, Website guidelines are the responsibility of ACT Information Management, a unit of the ACT Chief Minister's Department. The Guidelines were released earlier this year and are online at All ACT Government agencies are required to follow them. Regarding Accessibility, the websites must satisfy W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and must comply with P1, and should comply with P2 and P3 where possible.

There has been a limited amount of education for Web managers, consisting of two workshops conducted by Andrew Arch of Vision Australia. More are being planned.

The ACT contact is Kerry Webb - (02) 6207 0239

Specific ACT responses to Accessibility

The ACT Government has acquired a whole-of-government Content Management System - Meta*WizDom, developed by Wizard Information Services. Agencies will find it easier to comply with the Web Content Guidelines through using this system, as it is based on XML and can use standard templates extensively.

The implementation is not without its problems though - much depends on the basic design philosophy. In developing the system (currently there are three separate sites), we opted initially for three versions of every page: IE, NS and general (this necessitates some confusing URLs, but that's another issue).

One result of this is that everybody going to the Home Page gets a redirect, with a message asking the user to be patient. It also used to say to those users with browsers that couldn't meet the exacting standards required of the IE and NS versions: "You should upgrade to a more advanced browser". After a couple of tries, we arrived at a better choice of words.

In the latest site developed, we have collapsed the IE and NS versions into one - with no major ill effects - but we do need to test the sites very carefully to ensure that they work with a whole range of browsers. We'll continue to experiment with this.

More recently, we have worked with Equal Access Testing (EAT), a Canberra company that has undertaken Accessibility Evaluations of two ACT Government sites: Canberra Connect (an ACT Government services portal) and Urban Services (the agency that carries out most of the municipal activities of the ACT Government). The two sites were developed at around the same time using the same philosophy, so we expect that the two reports won't be too dissimilar.

The assessment of the Canberra Connect site was summarised as "[it] does not meet any specific conformance level". The main concern is that because of the design philosophy, it "does not achieve the first principle of accessible Web design - device independence". We accept the thrust of the comments from EAT, but in our opinion they are not yet sufficient to make us change our practice completely. We intentionally chose to go in this particular direction and we believe that it generally provides an acceptable level of accessibility. Nevertheless, we are considering carefully what the EAT report has proposed.

A couple of specific issues from the Evaluation are worth discussing. One is that on the Canberra Connect Home Page, there is a dynamic image that changes every time the users accesses the page. This is labelled (through an ALT tag) "Canberra Connect Central Image" no matter what the image is - flowers, mountains, or a lake view. The report suggested that we explicitly label each image. Initially, I couldn't see the point of this (actually I think the general idea of the changing image is confusing) but after discussing it with colleagues, I can now understand why. If we are putting anything there, we should make the meaning of the content obvious to all users.

Another issue has to do with the use of an image for bullet points. The report says that there is no need to create a link from such bullet points. Well, from an accessibility point of view that may be correct, but with regard to usability it's not the best solution as we've found that users will click on anything! So, we'll keep the links from the bullets for the moment, but think carefully about what we're doing.

On the issue of single pages for all types of browsers and technologies, it's interesting to hear what Jakob Nielsen says:

In his Alertbox of June 1999, he wrote:

But I am not sure that single-design pages will be able to deliver optimal usability in the future. For example, screen sizes will soon differ so drastically between high-end office workstations and small mobile devices that the same pages will not satisfy both. And I also think that one can make pages much more usable for blind users and users with other disabilities by designing explicitly for these groups.

The old approach of a "text-only" alternative may rise again: both for mobile users and for disabled users, though the two different sets of circumstances lend themselves to different designs, even within a text-only paradigm.

So how can we possibly maintain many different designs for each piece of content? The solution probably lies in template-driven, database-backed publishing with more intelligently-marked-up XML content that is transformed into appropriate hypertext units for each class of users and devices.

And as a final note, this is an excerpt from his latest column:

As long as companies and government agencies view accessibility as solely a matter of complying with regulations and technical specifications, rather than a way to support the work practices and customer needs of people with disabilities, equal opportunity will remain a travesty. Websites and intranets must follow usability principles and make it easier for customers and employees with disabilities to perform their tasks.

Further steps for the ACT Government

In our work so far, we've not been afraid to try things and to learn from our experience. We don't set out to make mistakes, but it's not the end of the world if we do something wrong. We've tinkered with our practices (not our policies) and will continue to do so. The Evaluation Report from Equal Access Testing has alerted us to a number of issues - some of which we'll address and some we may not consider appropriate.

One point that has emerged from our recent experience though is the need for better awareness of accessibility issues: better awareness by the Web managers and custodians, but more importantly by senior managers. This is not limited to accessibility, but it's one of the more significant areas where managers in general need to be educated.

Links: OZeWAI 2001 home page | presentations