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Accessibility on Singapore Government websites

Posted in accessibility, all posts, education, internet, policy, Singapore, web by coleman yee on June 30, 2009

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.

Web accessibility is also about access by devices like mobile phone browsers, or even browsers other than Internet Explorer like Firefox, Safari, or Opera.

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.

Moving forward

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.

* * *

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

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10 Responses

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  1. weekee said, on July 1, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    given the importance of accessibility especially with so many different browsers out now, why do you think government isn’t making it mandatory. Considering that they are the client, it isn’t so hard to request for it. Are vendors charging extra for it, etc?

  2. coleman yee said, on July 1, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Good question. For the older government websites and online services, they were built during the time when IE was so dominant that it didn’t matter as much as today. Also, there was a lot less awareness then, and competent vendors were even rarer then.

    These days, new government websites generally work on the most common browsers, partly because they do ask for it now. Beyond that, like small screen devices or screen readers, it’s still a different story – government clients don’t usually ask for it.

    Do vendors charge extra? They generally don’t for accessibility on common browsers, but for other devices, I’d think they normally do.

  3. draco said, on July 2, 2009 at 12:41 am

    They should really release the WIS recommendation to the public to be reviewed and improved on. I don’t know how much WCAG 2 has changed over the last few years, but last I heard about it were mostly negative over WCAG 1.

    I hope things have improved in the recommendation and is a good example now for WIS to be based on.

  4. coleman yee said, on July 3, 2009 at 12:00 am

    I don’t really see a need for the WIS to be reviewed by the public to be improved on, because it also serves as sort of a branding guide, which should be an internal matter.

    However, I think it should be publicly available in the spirit of openness. A few people have expressed this to me as well.

    Besides this, I strongly believe that the WIS should be a collaborative or at least a strong consultative effort involving interested web experts from different government agencies, and not just an effort by a single agency, especially since it affects all agencies.

    As for WCAG 1 or 2, we’re so far behind that it really doesn’t matter.

  5. […] on Singapore Government websites By Ivan Chew Coleman Yee blogs about web accessibility (or the lack of) in response to this IDA reply on the level of access for persons with disability […]

  6. draco said, on July 9, 2009 at 1:05 am

    Ah, I didn’t know WIS is a branding guide, so I stand corrected, couldn’t agree with you more then. There’s nothing I can do, so here’s good luck to making your belief a reality.

  7. mightytrashcan said, on February 21, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Sorry for such a late post, just happen to stumble upon this post. Yes, I agree very much with what you have said, especially in regards to horrific web education. I still remember the time when I focus alot on accessibility, web standards issues in my poly course work.

    Yet my lecturer marked me down terribly when I mentioned it as 1 of the key point (I do completed all required parts of the website too)

    He simply commented to the class that my team are spending effort on useless stuffs, like someone “who keep washing their hands because he thinks it’s not clean enough”.

    It was a big blow to me. Especially when I have managed to convince my team mates that improving accessibility and web standards are the way to go after we had totally finished all the website requirements. Unsurprisingly, my lecturer is quite a supporter of table based layouts.

    I personally think there is a need to make accessibility, web standards stuffs as the law/requirements for government based website or websites shall never improve over here.

  8. coleman yee said, on February 21, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    @mightytrashcan It’s unfortunate that your lecturer wasn’t competent. But don’t let that stop you from doing the right thing 🙂

  9. mightytrashcan said, on February 21, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    @coleman Thanks, Ye, I shall continue in what I believe in 🙂 despite the bad module grade back then. However this bought a sudden thought in me, what if you are working on a new project with colleagues or superior in the work place who doesn’t believe in such stuffs? How far would you go to try convince them before giving up and follow them in doing things the “outdated” way?

    I believe this is something which pledge many of the government websites too. At 1 point, you want to see a better “product”, yet at another end, there will always be colleagues/superiors who will never be able to see the obvious and you will be forcing yourself doing things the bad way.

    Asking this cause I’m going to an interview soon on a gov related job which may involve some maintenance of existing “outdated” sites. I figured I might touch lots of dirty markups if I manage to pass the interview.

  10. coleman yee said, on February 22, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    @mightytrashcan there’s no straightfoward answer to your question. There was a point in my life when I would keep insisting that I’m right (since I know I’m right), until something/someone breaks. I’ve since learnt to pick my battles. Learn to be more persuasive. Understand their perspective first, then see if I can shift their perspective to mine.
    The good thing is, since I’ve written this blog post almost 2 years ago, things have improved significantly among the gov sector here. So things are changing, although not always at the pace that we’d like.


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