The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) has a reply on today’s Straits Times forum (“More accessibility soon for e-govt sites“) recognizing the need for more accessibility on government websites.
This is a small but positive development for me, as I’ve been advocating website accessibility for years, particularly for government websites.
What is website accessibility
For those who are not familiar with web accessibility, it’s simply about making a website accessible or usable or “viewable” by different web browsers and devices, and thus accessible by the widest possible audience, including those with disabilities.
For instance, an accessible website would be usable by a screen reader, a special software that reads aloud what’s on the screen and browser, thus enabling a blind person to access that website.
Website accessibility is thus often associated with making a website accessible to users with disabilities, particularly the blind.
Conversely, if a blind user cannot access certain information on a website using a screen reader, that website is considered not accessible.
The accessibility of Singapore Government websites
When you surf around Singapore Government websites on a non-Internet Explorer browser, you sometimes encounter a message telling you that you can’t continue unless you’re using Internet Explorer.
That’s not an accessible website.
Whole populations of Singaporeans are being excluded from such online government services simply because they use a Mac instead of a PC, or because they don’t wish to use (the technically inferior) Internet Explorer.
And we’re not even talking about access by small screen devices like mobile phones, or access by disabled users. The situation is far worse for them.
There are a number of causes for the general lack of accessibility of Singapore Government websites, which I shall explore in the following sections.
People don’t know about web accessibility
The basic problem is that there’s simply a general lack of awareness of website accessibility, not just in the general population of web users, but among people who should know better. More on this below.
Singapore’s horrific web education
My use of “horrific” is not hyperbole. Almost all the web design courses I’ve encountered on web design has little or no coverage on web accessibility, even though it is one of the core issues in web development. It’s like studying to be a doctor without learning about the skeletal system, or learning to drive without learning the road signs.
Put simply, you’re not a competent web person if you don’t know web accessibility.
This situation began because we hired teachers who were not web competent in the first place. Guess what? Their students turn out incompetent too.
We now have a whole ecosystem of incompetent web people. But we don’t know it because nobody dies from an incompetent web developer, unlike doctors or drivers.
It’s not a Singapore Government-wide requirement
As mentioned in the forum reply, IDA introduced the Web interface standards (WIS) in 2004 for government wide implementation.
In the WIS (I’m quite familiar with it), IDA does recommend that government websites be accessible, but does not require it. In reality, these recommendations are usually ignored. Including those on web accessibility.
Government agencies don’t demand it
Almost all Singapore Government websites are built by external web vendors, not in-house by the government agency themselves. When a government agency wants a new website, they would lay down the specifications for the vendor to follow.
One of the usual specs would be to follow the WIS. But since accessibility isn’t a requirement in the WIS, the vendors generally don’t pay attention to it.
Of course, the agency can always make accessibility a requirement for their website. But that rarely happens. Largely due to the lack of awareness and poor web education.
Web vendors and developers don’t do it (well)
Even if a government agency does ask for their website to be accessible, many web vendors don’t do it properly.
Quite simply, many web developers in Singapore are simply not competent. While the horrific web education is to blame, the ultimate responsibility lies with the web developers themselves.
As web professionals, web developers should know that the field has moved on since they’ve finished school, so they need to keep themselves abreast of developments.
But most have not done so, resulting in incompetent web developers and vendors.
I’ve even seen vendors that claim to be able to make a website accessible, or even claim to specialize in it. Most of them don’t live up to their claims.
Unfortunately because of the widespread incompetence, most agencies aren’t able to properly evaluate the work of the vendors, so they don’t know how (in)accessible the sites really are.
The exceptions – competent web vendors and developers
There are exceptions, thankfully.
I’ve met many web developers who love their craft, keep themselves updated, and of course are completely competent. A good place to find them is through the Web Standards Group Singapore.
I’ve also encountered web vendors that are competent and believe in web accessibility. These are vendors that will make a website accessible for their client whether the client asks for it or not.
It’s just the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, exceptions are still exceptions. The average web vendor will not care about web accessibility unless they have to, since it’s a lot more effort for them given their incompetence. (However it’s not much more effort for the competent web professional.)
Government-wide web accessibility can only be achieved if it’s mandatory. Thus I hope that the next review of the WIS will make accessibility a requirement, not just a toothless recommendation.
From the non-committal tone of IDA’s forum reply, I’m pessimistic that this would happen, but I’d love to be proven wrong.
Accessible government websites are already a legal requirement in most developed countries for years. Singapore is way, way behind in this.
It’s time to boldly step forward.
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Here’s a copy of IDA’s reply on the Straits Times forum, published June 30, 2009 Tuesday:
More accessibility soon for e-govt sites
I REFER to Ms Chia Woon Yee’s letter last Wednesday, ‘Ensure e-govt websites are disabled-friendly’.
Since 2004, the Government has introduced a set of Web interface standards (WIS) to make government websites easier to use and provide a more consistent experience of navigating across different government websites. Under the WIS, government agencies are required to adopt a set of mandatory standards and recommended guidelines for designing their websites and online services.
The guidelines include catering to the needs of the disabled by adopting World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0). We recognise the importance of ensuring universal access and will review our WIS against the recently released WCAG 2.0.
We also note Ms Chia’s feedback on the e-government services website. We are in the midst of updating both the http://www.gov.sg and eCitizen portals. As part of the update, we will look into incorporating more Web accessibility features in these portals.
We thank Ms Chia for her feedback.
Ng Sook Fun (Ms)
Director, Corporate and Marketing Communication
Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore