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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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Creating Great Schools

Posted in all posts, books, education, innovation, management, policy by coleman yee on January 24, 2007

Educators know that there is something deeply wrong with the school and educational systems, and that there’s definitely a need for change. And yes, changes have been made, but real, positive results, if any at all, are barely visible. In fact, resistance is rife, or if not resistance, neglect or grudging compliance, perhaps until management gives up.

Creating Great Schools: Six Critical Systems at the Heart of Educational Innovation by Phillip C. Schlechty is a book that addresses the issue.

Creating Great Schools
But what is wrong? What, exactly, is the problem?

I often hear educators complain about “students nowadays”, who, unlike in the good ol’ days, have less respect for teachers and have little self-discipline. The implication would often be that the fault lies with the students (and their parents and the society), and there’s little the teacher can do.

What educators often miss is that there’s a need for a paradigm shift – a shift from compliance and attendance to engagement. According to Schlechty,

the present system is designed to produce compliance and attendance. What we need are schools that ensure that most students learn at high levels […]. To achieve this, schools must be redesigned to nurture commitment and attention.

Because schools are really complex social organizations, when implementing systemic changes (“educational innovations”), social systems within the organization need to be managed and changed as well, without which the effort in systemic change is almost sure to fail. Schlechty identifies 6 critical social systems:

  • Recruitment and induction systems
  • Knowledge transmission systems
  • Power and authority systems
  • Evaluation systems
  • Directional systems
  • Boundary systems

Schlechty explains in detail how each of the 6 critical systems affect the dynamics of the school system, and some key questions to be addressed by the management.

While this book deals only with the American school system, the same problems often exist in other educational systems elsewhere. And Schlechty certainly seems to have a clear grasp of the problems in educational systems.

An important book for those interested in educational and change management.

Top-Down Support for Ground-Up Initiative?

Posted in all posts, education, literature, policy, teaching by coleman yee on October 25, 2006

Just a few weeks ago, I was speaking to someone who used to teach Literature in a secondary school. She was relating about how she engaged her students using drama techniques in her Literature lessons.

Then one day her principal, who was observing her lesson, told her not to waste time doing all that drama stuff, right in front of her students.

That school lost a great Literature teacher soon after.

Then last week, I was chatting with a primary school teacher. As typical of many teachers I’ve talked to, he was griping about the amount of work, the administrative work he had to do, the politics he had to contend with in the school, the difficult people he had to work under – people who were more concerned with everything else other than students’ learning.

One of the classes he had to take was PE (Physical Education). And for his primary 2 class, he had to teach them how to dribble a basketball.

He described to me with much excitement and detail the intricacies of teaching 8-year-old kids how to dribble a ball – the preliminary steps he took to first help them overcome their fear of the ball, then how he helped them understand the mechanics of a bouncing ball, before slowly letting them walk then run while dribbling the ball.

To be honest, his experience of teaching kids how to bounce the ball wasn’t too fascinating to me, but what impressed me was how passionate he was about the whole thing – teaching 8-year-olds how to dribble a ball – which made me a little ashamed of my own lack of interest.

Then he related to me how his PE HOD (Head of Department) threatened to rate him poorly for his class, only because he didn’t adhere to the prescribed methodology for teaching kids how to dribble balls. Prescribed by the PE HOD himself of course.

Our friend was naturally quite incensed, and made it clear to the HOD that he would still stick to his own method of teaching. It certainly helped that his students were dribbling balls better than the HOD’s own students, so he got by, but not without becoming a little less popular with a superior.

Now what really bothers me about these two stories is that they aren’t isolated incidents. I hear such stories from passionate teachers all the time. Primary school teachers, secondary school teachers, Junior College teachers, even polytechnic lecturers. I hear this all the time.

The only consolation, perhaps, is that there have been policy changes within the Ministry of Education to address this.

In a speech on 28 September this year, Education Minister Mr Tharman said,

The quality improvements are not coming in top-down, but from initiatives taken by teachers on the ground – whether it’s a change in the school curriculum, or a new way of teaching the existing curriculum, or a new way of organising students for learning.

He then went on to cite some examples of this “top-down support for ground-up initiative” already taking place in schools.

I mentioned this to the primary school teacher, but he roundly dismissed it. He obviously wasn’t seeing any top-down support for any ground-up initiatives in his school. He was getting jaded, fast.

I have no doubt myself that this “top-down support for ground-up initiative” is the way to go – the best teachers are the ones who need the most space and flexibility to do their thing.

I only hope that these teachers on the ground will get to see this in their own situations soon, before we lose more great teachers.